Dennis Johnson: How Healthy Habits Can Hold Off Kidney Complications


Dennis Johnson. Photo/C.B. Bell.
Dennis Johnson. Photo/C.B. Bell.

By Elaine Porterfield

Special to The Medium

Dennis Johnson got the news from his doctor more than three decades ago: something was happening to his kidneys. The vital organs weren’t operating as well as they should have. It came as a complete surprise to the college student.

“It was 1979, and I had gone off to school in Michigan,” Johnson recalled. “When I got back home to California for the summer, everyone said I looked horrible, green and washed out.

“I went in to see my doctor and he noted my creatinine levels had jumped all of a sudden.”

A blood sample high in creatinine, a waste product of the body, is a sign that kidneys are not working as well as they should. A subsequent biopsy of his left kidney indicated interstitial nephritis, an inflammation of the tissues there. His right kidney showed other urological problems. Johnson was shocked; he felt extremely healthy. There was no history of kidney disease in his family. “I was a young long distance runner and I lifted weights,” he said.

Johnson, now an Edmonds resident, was in good company. One in seven American adults—that’s more than 30 million people—has chronic kidney disease; most don’t know it. It is progressive and irreversible, although the damage can be slowed through lifestyle changes and careful attention to diet and medication.

Kidney disease can strike anyone at any age, and people of color have a higher risk of developing it. Johnson says it’s vital people know their health risks and take care of themselves. High blood pressure and diabetes both can cause kidney disease, he notes, so it’s important people stay on top of these issues.

“You may or may not be able to control the onset of diabetes,” he said, “but one of the simplest things you can do is check and control your blood pressure. Nowadays, the medicines to control your blood pressure can be very cheap. It’s better for your health in the long run to control it so that you also maintain your kidney health.

“It’s amazing to me so many people don’t know they have high blood pressure. In terms of the risk of kidney disease, that’s probably one of the easiest things to fix. Sometimes men can get into being macho and think they don’t need to do certain things like taking care of their blood pressure.”

Johnson took his own advice: at the time of his kidney disease diagnosis he decided always to stay on top of his health.

“I went out and started running again,” he said. “I was careful of my diet. I haven’t added salt to a meal since 1979. I try to stay away from processed food, to eat whole grains and watch for fatty foods.”

The upshot? Though physicians told Johnson at the time he was diagnosed with kidney disease that he would probably be on dialysis within five years, he managed to go almost 35 years before his kidneys declined so much that he required the life-saving treatment.

“I’m 61 years old, I feel great, and I just started home peritoneal dialysis last month,” said Johnson, who gives himself the treatments under supervision of Northwest Kidney Centers. Home peritoneal dialysis on a flexible schedule fits his active lifestyle perfectly.

Kidney disease and going on dialysis certainly hasn’t slowed him down. More than five years ago, the retired organizational psychologist took up the martial art of aikido, and attends class three to five times a week. “I went to aikido because of its philosophy of self-defense. Also there isn’t much in the way of punching or kicking,” Johnson said. “One of the nice things about it is you can do it into your 80s, and beyond if you stay healthy.”

When he’s not in aikido class, you can find Johnson volunteering with Northwest Kidney Centers or Rotary. To learn more about keeping your kidneys healthy, visit Northwest Kidney Centers at

Elaine Porterfield is a freelance writer based in Seattle.