Management of acute renal failure in the elderly patient: a clinician's guide

Drugs Aging. 2008;25(6):455-76. doi: 10.2165/00002512-200825060-00002.


Numerous anatomical and functional changes occurring in the aging kidney lead to reduced glomerular filtration rate, lower renal blood flow and impaired renal autoregulation. The elderly are especially vulnerable to the development of renal dysfunction and in this population acute renal failure (ARF) is a common problem. ARF is often iatrogenic and multifactorial; common iatrogenic combinations include pre-existing renal dysfunction and exposure to nephrotoxins such as radiocontrast agents or aminoglycosides, use of NSAIDs in patients with congestive cardiac failure and use of ACE inhibitors and diuretics in patients with underlying atherosclerotic renal artery stenosis. The aetiology of ARF is classically grouped into three categories: prerenal, intrinsic and postrenal. Prerenal ARF is the second most common cause of ARF in the elderly, accounting for nearly one-third of all hospitalized cases. Common causes can be grouped into true volume depletion (e.g. decreased fluid intake), decreased effective blood volume (e.g. systemic vasodilation) and haemodynamic (e.g. renal artery stenosis, NSAID use). Acute tubular necrosis (ATN) is the most common cause of intrinsic ARF and is responsible for over 50% of ARF in hospitalized patients, and up to 76% of cases in patients in intensive care units. ATN usually occurs after an acute ischaemic or toxic event. The pathogenesis of ATN involves an interplay of processes that include endothelial injury, microvascular flow disruption, tubular hypoxia, dysfunction and apoptosis, tubular obstruction and trans-tubular back-leak. Vasculitis causing ARF should not be missed as this condition is potentially life threatening. The likelihood of a postrenal cause for ARF increases with age. Benign prostatic hypertrophy, prostatic carcinoma and pelvic malignancies are all important causes. Early identification of ARF secondary to obstruction with renal imaging is essential, and complete or partial renal recovery usually ensues following relief of the obstruction.A comprehensive medical and drug history and physical examination are all invaluable. Particular attention should be paid to the fluid status of the patient (skin turgor, jugular venous pressure, lying and standing blood pressure, urine output). Urinalysis should be performed to detect evidence of proteinuria and haematuria, which will aid diagnosis. Fractional excretion of sodium and urine osmolality may be measured but the widespread use of diuretics in the elderly gives rise to unreliable results. Renal imaging, usually ultrasound scanning, is routinely performed for assessment of renal size and to exclude urinary obstruction. In some cases, renal biopsy is necessary to provide specific diagnostic information. The general principles of managing ARF include treatment of life-threatening features such as shock, respiratory failure, hyperkalaemia, pulmonary oedema, metabolic acidosis and sepsis; stopping and avoiding administration of nephrotoxins; optimization of haemodynamic and fluid status; adjustment of drug dosage appropriate to glomerular filtration rate; early nutritional support; and early referral to nephrologists for diagnosis of ARF cause, timely initiation of dialysis and initiation of specific treatment. The treatment of prerenal and ATN ARF is largely supportive with little evidence of benefit from current pharmacological therapies. Despite advances in critical care medicine and renal replacement therapy, the mortality of ARF has not changed significantly over the last 40 years, with current mortality rates being up to 75%.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Kidney Injury / diagnosis
  • Acute Kidney Injury / etiology
  • Acute Kidney Injury / therapy*
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Humans
  • Kidney / pathology*
  • Kidney / physiology
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic*
  • Prognosis