Mary Tyler Moore: Diabetes Patient and Advocate

By Matt McMillen
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

Jan. 26, 2017 -- For millions of people with diabetes, Mary Tyler Moore will be most fondly recalled for her tireless efforts to advance research into the disease, in particular type 1 diabetes.

Moore, a 1970s television icon best known for her four-time Emmy Award-winning role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, died Wednesday. She was 80.

Moore was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 33 and lived with it for nearly half a century. The disease is often thought of as one that starts in childhood, but about 50% of those with it are diagnosed as adults, says Andrew Ahmann, MD, director of the Harold Schnitzer Diabetes Center at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

Beginning in 1984, Moore was chairwoman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, one of the biggest sponsors of type 1 diabetes research.

"Over the past 30 years, Moore educated about and increased awareness of T1D around the world and raised millions of dollars for research that will one day lead to a cure," reads a statement from the JDRF. "With Moore's passing, our country has lost an advocate, a hero and a woman who 'turned the world on with her smile' both on and off screen."

Moore, who testified before Congress as part of the JDRF's Children's Congress in 2005 and again in 2006 and 2007, pushed for research funding that would eventually lead to many now-common diabetes tools, which were unavailable to her when she was diagnosed.

"For at least the first 20 years that she had diabetes, she would not have been able to check her own blood sugars," Ahmann says. "And if you go back to the kinds of insulins available when she was diagnosed, they were less pure, less responsive, they might peak unexpectedly, compared to those we have today."

An estimated 1.25 million Americans have the disease, which is much less common than type 2 diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes produce no insulin, a hormone that breaks down sugars and starches and converts them to glucose, which the body uses for energy. Without insulin, blood sugar levels rise, leading to dangerous, potentially fatal complications. Over time, diabetes boosts your chances of having high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, and other chronic conditions.

Managing Her Disease

Moore told interviewer Larry King in 2005 that she was careful about what she ate, exercised, and tested her blood sugar regularly.

"I need insulin to stay alive. It's just therapy to keep going," she said. "What I can do is make sure that I keep my blood sugar down to a reasonable level. I can exercise, and I can eat properly. And insulin plays a very big part in that."

When King asked what scared her the most about the disease, Moore said: "What next might happen to me. As I said, I've had problems with my eyes, and my legs hurt if I walk a great deal. That's due to very bad circulation. It's called claudication, and it's painful. So I have to stop if I'm walking, and pretending I'm looking in the window, so that I can rest them a little bit and then start off again."

Kidney disease, she said, "could attack me or anybody else at any time. Blindness, I've been lucky enough to have some wonderful doctors who are really looking at me closely and doing what's necessary."

By the end of her life, the disease reportedly had taken a toll on Moore's vision. In her 2009 book, Growing Up Again: Life, Loves, and Oh Yeah, Diabetes, Moore discusses being diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, a condition that often affects the eyesight of people with diabetes, along with glaucoma and other problems.

TV Trailblazer, Diabetes Research Advocate

Born in Brooklyn, NY, on December 29, 1936, Moore became famous as a member of the cast of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran from 1961 to 1965. Five years later, The Mary Tyler Moore Show began its seven-season run on CBS. Cast as a single working woman living in Minneapolis, she played TV news producer Mary Richards. A feminist icon, Moore's character advocated for equal pay for women and challenged workplace sexism. The show also did not shy away from topics like birth control and homosexuality.

As she became less active on television, her role in diabetes advocacy became more prominent.

"She was remarkable in her efforts over the years," Ahmann says. "She was one of the biggest advocates in this country."

Over time, knowledge of diabetes and the tools to treat it advanced significantly, says Ahmann. Insulin pumps, for example, allow for precise, flexible dosing, while continuous glucose monitors can track blood sugar levels nearly up to the minute.

As people with type 1 diabetes age, Ahmann says, the disease appears to affect the brain, causing cognitive dysfunction.

Nerve damage, another complication, also takes a toll. "You don't feel your feet, so you tend to have more falls," he says. "And because people with type 1 diabetes also have lower bone density and greater chance of osteoporosis, falls have great potential to cause fractures, particularly hip fractures."

Self-care becomes more difficult with age. Older people may have more trouble sticking their finger correctly to test their blood glucose levels, or they may forget to do so. Eating habits also become less predictable and blood glucose levels more variable.

But not all the news is bad, says Ahmann. He points to research that shows that older people with diabetes have increasingly done better in recent decades, as treatments and tools have improved.

"People will be able to stay in better control for longer periods, for much of their life, and reduce complications," says Ahmann. "And I think things will keep getting better."

Moore's advocacy efforts over the years played no small part in the advances now available, Ahmann says, and she was truly unique.

"Not many persevere in their focus on volunteering as she did so consistently throughout her life."

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SOURCES: Andrew Ahmann, MD, endocrinologist; director, Harold Schnitzer Diabetes Health Center, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland. Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation: "JDRF Statement on the Passing of International Chairman Mary Tyler Moore." Roll Call: "A Life in Photos: Mary Tyler Moore Was a Fixture on Hill for Diabetes Research." The New York Times: "Mary Tyler Moore, Who Incarnated the Modern Woman on TV, Dies at 80," "Sex and That '70s Single Woman, Mary Tyler Moore." Today: "Mary Tyler Moore was a passionate advocate for diabetes research." American Diabetes Association: "Statistics about Diabetes."

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