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Personal Stories

Mary Tyler Moore – The First T1D Celebrity Advocate

In observance of Women’s History Month, T1D Strong would like to highlight bold women with standout accomplishments. At the top of the list is the legendary Mary Tyler Moore, the first T1D celebrity activist. Ms. Moore shattered stereotypes about women in the 1970s and individuals with type 1 diabetes by blazing a path forward and showing that limitations are simply illusions. The celebrated actress and producer raised over two billion dollars for diabetes research, and her advocacy efforts elevated the bar for other celebrities to follow in her footsteps.‍

Mary Tyler Moore – The First T1D Celebrity Advocate

When celebrities use their power and influence to enlighten others about an issue, they support, educate, and inspire in ways the average person cannot. Mary Tyler Moore's type 1 diabetes (T1D) diagnosis at age 33 sparked a change in the way we look at diabetes. Her openness about her diagnosis raised awareness for increased testing, whereas enhanced testing saves lives.

Her fundraising and support for T1D research remain unparalleled. As a diabetes educator, Moore led a group of government relations volunteers, T1Ds and their families to petition the U.S. Congress for increase funding for the National Institute of Health (NIH), Special Diabetes Program (SDP) for T1D research. She also served as the international chairwoman for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). Moore’s impact and legacy continue long after her passing at age 80.

Fun Fact: Treat yourself to the original documentary Being Mary Tyler Moore, The Woman Behind the Smile, now streaming on HBO Max. It was an official selection of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film & TV Festival 2023.

Adult Type 1 Diabetes Diagnosis

For years, people associated type 1 diabetes with children and adolescents, contributing to the misdiagnosis of adults with type 2. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), only five percent of people with diabetes have type 1. The term LADA (latent autoimmune diabetes in adults), also called type 1.5 or type 1½, refers to individuals diagnosed over the age of 30. Unlike type 2 diabetes, LADA is an autoimmune disease and isn’t reversed with dietary lifestyle changes. We now know that people in their 70s and 80s can develop type 1 diabetes.

Who Was Mary Tyler Moore

Moore was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1936. Her family later moved to Los Angeles, California, which ignited her love for dancing and singing. Moore quickly received job offers for commercials and minor TV bit roles, but it wasn’t until she caught the eye of television producer Carl Reiner to play the wife of Dick Van Dyke on The Dick Van Dyke Show, that her career suddenly skyrocketed, lighting her star power.

Actress Mary Tyler Moore

The major break resulted in a 60-year film and television career, which earned her 16 Emmy nominations and seven Emmy Awards, including induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1986.

America’s Favorite TV Wife

Moore stole hearts for her iconic portrayal of the beloved Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which aired from 1961 to 1966. The role won her two Emmy awards for Outstanding Performance by a Lead Actress. Heavily influenced by author Betty Friedan of The Feminine Mystique, Moore was one of the first women to wear pants on television.

Four years later, she teamed up again with Van Dyke for a reunion show that gilded rave reviews. The accolades led to her second smash hit, her own starring role and series.

America’s Sweetheart

America’s favorite TV wife morphed into America’s sweetheart in the iconic Mary Tyler Moore Show, which many consider the best television comedy of all time. The groundbreaking show aired from 1970 to 1977 and featured complex themes and strong female characters who challenged the status quo of women as strictly homemakers and mothers.

Ms. Moore’s character, Mary Richards, a Minneapolis news producer, became a role model to young girls as the first single, independent career woman who was not searching for a husband.

With the support of her second husband and producer, Grant Tinker, the two started the Mary Tyler Moore production company.

Mary Tyler Moore – The First T1D Advocate

In 1968, at the age of 33, Moore suffered a miscarriage. The doctors discovered her blood glucose level was at 750 and diagnosed her with type 1 diabetes. At a National Press Club briefing in Washington, D.C., Moore said, “The doctors did not know how I was still alive and walking around. But within 48 hours, I was brought back to normal, and then began the hard part, living with the disease.” Moore later cited on CBS News that diabetes is a “tremendous burden that affects you emotionally as well as physically.”

In Moore’s later years, the actress-turned-advocate worked passionately for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, now the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). Moore became a spokesperson and international chairwoman for JDRF, raising funds on Capitol Hill to support the JDRF Children’s Congress.

Triumphs and Tragedies

Moore’s life was rife with successes and heartbreak. She lost a sister to a barbiturate overdose, and in 1980, her son Ritchie, with her first husband, Richard Meeker, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head while handling his shotgun at home. She also suffered from alcoholism and was treated at the Betty Ford Center.

In 1981, Moore’s marriage to Grant Tinker ended in divorce. She later met cardiologist Dr. Robert Levine who was treating her mother at the time. The two married in 1983 when Moore was in her late 40s and Levine was 29. The couple remained married until her death.

Mary Tyler Moore Vision Initiative

Unfortunately, Moore experienced severe diabetes complications that eventually resulted in near blindness from diabetic retinal disease (DRD). For over thirty years, Moore has helped raise billions of dollars for diabetes research and worked on countless public service campaigns to bring understanding to the disease.

The onset of her condition inspired Moore’s husband, Dr. S. Robert Levine, M.D., to create with her the Mary Tyler Moore Vision Initiative (MTM Vision) to prevent the progression of diabetic eye disease. MTM Vision establishes research, including a cutting-edge human eye tissue biobank. The biobank stores samples for research to provide insight into the cellular and molecular breakdown of DRD, which affects more than 50 million people worldwide.

Diabetic Retinal Disease

DRD, or diabetic retinopathy, is a complication of diabetes that affects the eyes and is caused by damage to the blood vessels at the back of the retina. Poorly controlled blood sugar levels is a risk factor, which is why yearly diabetes care eye examinations are vital. Early symptoms include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Floaters
  • Difficulty perceiving color

The National Institute of Health offers steps to prevent DRD:

  • Manage the diabetes ABCs (blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol).
  • Quit smoking if you’re a smoker.
  • Get a dilated eye exam once a year.

Watching blood sugar levels and ensuring blood glucose levels are in the target range will help alleviate complications. Other ramifications of the disease include vision loss and kidney diseases. Moore also suffered from diabetic neuropathy, which she received relief with vascular surgery.

Love is All Around

As a true visionary, Moore revolutionized the working girl in the 1970s and changed how we see women and individuals with type 1 diabetes. She once said, “Having a dream is what keeps you alive. Overcoming the challenges makes life worth living.”

If you happen to be in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota, don’t miss the famous MTM statue of Moore tossing her hat skyward in the famous opening credits to the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Built in 2002, the sculpture pays tribute to the iconic humanitarian who turned the world on with her smile.

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