What really caused the death of beloved actress Mary Tyler Moore?
Was it type 1 diabetes, which famously plagued the actress for almost her entire adult life? Or was it pneumonia, which sent her to the hospital in the days before her death? Did cardiac arrest kill her? This is what the public was told caused her death on Wednesday at age 80.1
In fact, the way she passed away is all too common among diabetics.
The greatest risk from diabetes is not the disease itself. Unstable blood sugar by itself is not a major killer. But the health conditions diabetes causes—doctors call them comorbidities—present the greatest danger.2
One of the biggest threats is pneumonia. It kills more than 50,000 Americans a year. Pneumonia is the eighth-leading cause of death in the U.S. And diabetics have double the risk of getting it. They have triple the risk of dying from it.3,4,5
Diabetics are more susceptible to pneumonia because blood sugar swings damage blood vessels in their lungs. This is a condition called pulmonary microangiopathy.6
In addition, diabetics often have weaker immune systems. This makes them less able to fight off infections, including pneumonia.
When someone with diabetes gets pneumonia, it progresses faster than in other patients. It can start with a cough. A fever may develop. Breathing difficulties quickly follow.7
A patient’s lungs may fill with fluid, making breathing impossible. When this happens, doctors may put a patient on a ventilator. This is a machine that helps them breathe.
If the infection cannot be stopped, it can invade the heart muscle, causing cardiac arrest and death.8 This is the medical chain of events that likely took Mary Tyler Moore’s life.
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5 Early Warning Signs of Pneumonia
It’s crucial that people with diabetes know the early warning signs of pneumonia:
- A persistent cough.
- Fever that goes up at night.
- Chest pain. Often it is on the right side. Doctors don’t know why, but the right lung of diabetics is more vulnerable to pneumonia than the left.
- Weakness and overall malaise.
- Severe sore throat.9
If you’re a diabetic and you have any of these symptoms, you should seek immediate medical attention. Pneumonia is a medical emergency, especially for diabetes patients.
Even as she fought the disease, Moore tried to save others by tirelessly promoting diabetes research. She testified to Congress and was the face of public service campaigns by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.10
By making it to age 80, Moore beat the odds. The average lifespan of a woman with diabetes is 68. But she was well aware that her time could come at any moment.
“Diabetes is an all-too-personal time bomb which can go off today, tomorrow, next year, or 10 years from now,” she wrote in her 2009 book, Growing Up Again.11
By the time her “time bomb” went off, Mary Tyler Moore had become a hero to those who shared her disease.