Transcription of a large part of the human genome results in RNA transcripts that have limited or no protein-coding potential. These include long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs), which are defined as being ≥200 nucleotides long. Unlike microRNAs, which have been extensively studied, little is known about the functional role of lncRNAs. However, studies over the past 5 years have shown that lncRNAs interfere with tissue homeostasis and have a role in pathological processes, including in the kidney and heart. The developmental expression of the microRNA sponge H19, for example, is altered in the kidneys of embryos carried by hyperglycaemic mothers, and the lncRNA Malat1 regulates hyperglycaemia-induced inflammation in endothelial cells. Putative roles for other lncRNAs have been identified in conditions such as heart failure, cardiac autophagy, hypertension, acute kidney injury, glomerular diseases, acute allograft rejection and renal cell carcinoma. This Review outlines our current understanding of the role and function of lncRNAs in kidney and cardiovascular disease as novel important regulators and potential therapeutic entry points of disease progression.