March 1, 2024

Exploring the connection between kidney and heart health

Empower yourself for a healthier future by understanding how these two organs are critically linked
Nabilah Gulamhusein
Nabilah Gulamhusein, a PhD candidate, speaks about the links between kidney and heart health.

Did you know kidney and heart health are closely linked? We sat down with Nabilah Gulamhusein, a PhD student at the Cumming School of Medicine supervised by kidney researcher and clinician Dr. Sofia Ahmed, MD, to learn more about these closely related organs and some of the important research taking place at the Libin Cardiovascular Institute. 

What’s the connection between the kidneys and the heart? 

The heart and kidneys must work together to keep you healthy. The heart pumps oxygenated blood throughout the body, and the kidneys remove waste from your body. Without your heart, your kidneys would not have oxygenated blood (which is essential for its function) and without the kidneys, your heart would not be able to function because of the toxic environment. Additionally, the kidneys and heart work hand-in-hand to manage your blood pressure. 

How does kidney health impact heart health and vice versa? 

Kidney disease and heart disease share many of the same risk factors, such as diabetes and hypertension. Heart disease increases the risk of kidney disease and vice versa. People living with kidney disease are more than 10 times more likely to develop heart disease! 

Why should we care about kidney health? 

The kidneys have many important functions in the body. They remove waste products from your body and help regulate electrolytes and minerals, such as salt, calcium and potassium and ensure you have the right amount of water in your body by excreting or retaining it. The kidneys also play a role in producing hormones that have important functions in regulating blood pressure and producing red blood cells. Finally, the kidneys help your body manage medications so that they have the optimal effect.

How can I empower myself to keep my kidneys healthy? 

There are multiple steps that you can take to keep your kidneys healthy! Eating a balanced diet by incorporating a variety of healthy foods and limiting highly processed foods and salt is important. Being active and taking small steps to reduce sedentary time is also helpful. Eliminating the use of commercial tobacco and vaping and controlling other medical conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure—by following the advice of your healthcare providers and taking your medications as directed—can also help keep your kidneys healthy.

Tell us about your research. 

Recently, I worked with Dr. Sandra Dumanski, MD, investigating whether testosterone is linked to cardiovascular health in women living with kidney disease. We discovered that while the amount of testosterone in the body doesn’t appear to directly related to cardiovascular health, the balance of testosterone and estrogen seems to be important in the heart health of women living with kidney disease. These findings have now been published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology Open

Why is your research important? 

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women, and kidney disease further increases the risk. For this reason, it is important to learn more about why the risk is so high among women living with kidney disease and to find ways to reduce this risk. Sex hormones may influence cardiovascular health, and kidney disease often affects sex hormones, however, very little research has examined this link so far. Our study was the first to examine the relationship between testosterone and cardiovascular risk in women living with kidney disease and will help move science forward in this important area of study. 

Can you tell us about other research projects in your lab? 

Our lab is working on a variety of exciting projects that will enhance our knowledge about kidney health as well as the kidney-heart connection! Historically, much of cardiovascular and kidney research has not considered how an individual’s sex (biological attributes) or gender (sociocultural attributes) influences health and health outcomes. The work going on in our lab will enhance the understanding of how of sex and gender may influence both heart and kidney health and help care providers design personalized care plans for patients.