Debbie Allen Opens Up About Her Pre-Diabetes Diagnosis and the Advocacy Work It Inspired

A candid discussion about essential lifestyle changes, the COVID weight gain so many can relate to...and keeping up with grandkiddos.

When you’re in good health, it’s easy to take the little things for granted—your feet walking you home, your eyes looking up at a sunset, your teeth chewing a delicious dinner. However, actress, dancer and director Debbie Allen wants to share an important reminder: If you get complacent about your health, you could be jeopardizing it. 

Allen, 73, has been healthy and active for decades, from her stint on the 1980s musical-drama Fame (for which she won six Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes) to her current role as Dr. Catherine Avery on Grey’s Anatomy. Several years ago, though, she was diagnosed as pre-diabetic, and suddenly Allen realized she needed to be more proactive about her wellbeing. 

Now, she’s joining with Prevent Blindness and Regeneron on a new campaign to raise awareness about eye health in particular, and how diseases such as diabetes can raise your risk for retinal issues. Allen spoke with The Healthy @Reader’s Digest about her family history with diabetes, how her diagnosis has affected her lifestyle and the lifelong health impacts she’s still reaping from dance.

Debbie Allen on the Gr8 Eye Movement

The Healthy @Reader’s Digest: Debbie, fans of all ages adore you. What’s made you so passionate to talk about eye health?

Debbie Allen: The Gr8 Eye Movement campaign is an incredible initiative that I’m collaborating with Prevent Blindness and Regeneron to bring awareness and hopefully inspire people to take priority with their eye health. There are so many retinal diseases and eye situations that can happen, and especially the 60-and-over crowd, which I’m definitely a part of, and some of these diseases that could just really creep up on you without your paying attention to it, which is why this movement is so great. 

Great is spelled with an 8 [because] when you turn it on its side, it looks like two eyes looking at you. So the messaging is right in the title of this campaign, and for me, I have been diagnosed as being pre-diabetic and there’s a lot of complications that come with that, but nobody was talking about my vision or my eyesight. They were talking about other things. Ninety-five percent of the people who are absolutely being affected by retinal diseases don’t know anything about these diseases. This is stuff that happens in the back of your eye, so it’s not like something you just can see coming. So diabetic retinopathy, diabetic macular edema and wet age-related macular degeneration are names of diseases and issues that people don’t even know about, and I’m hopefully going to bring attention to it and get everybody on the eighth of every month, to go on our website, thegr8eyemovement.com, and get all the information and resources and start having ideas about how to prioritize your eye health. It’s important.

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Debbie Allen’s pre-diabetes diagnosis

The Healthy: We would love to talk with you a little bit more about your pre-diabetes diagnosis. Can you share how that’s transformed your lifestyle?

Debbie Allen: Well, it certainly did improve my diet. I was always very physical, most of my dancing life, and then I started directing and producing more, and I went from dancing almost every day, eight to six hours a day to maybe three, and now it’s one hour several times a week, so I have to stay physical and I have to watch my diet. COVID was no good friend for that because with that kind of isolation, all we did was cook and eat, and so I had to get back on my bike.

In terms of what I needed to do for pre-diabetes, my whole family has been really ravaged by diabetes—my father, my grandfather, my uncles, aunts, cousins. I have cousins right now whose vision is totally compromised because of their diabetic condition. But some of these things that we’re talking about are not diabetic-related, like the wet age-related macular degeneration is not related to diabetes. You could have it at any time. So this is a call for people to really take a moment in time on the eighth of every month to start to consider how to prioritize their eye health.

The Healthy: We love that. Clearly this eye health awareness conversation is an important component of what you’re doing—what other advice do you have for someone who’s diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes?

Debbie Allen: I think regular checkups with your healthcare provider, really pay attention to diet and exercise, and also make your family aware of it, because diabetes is something that’s somewhat congenital as I see it. I can say that as Dr. Catherine Fox on Grey’s Anatomy maybe, but for me it is ruining our family and we kept waiting. I actually kept thinking I might develop it when I gave birth with my children because that’s gestational diabetes, but it didn’t happen and Daddy told me to always keep dancing and I have pretty much danced my whole life. But I would just say people should take a moment and get their blood checked, watch their diet and take note of the rest of your family, your children, your blood relatives. See what’s going on.

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The Healthy: I know you mentioned you’re still dancing, and we can’t talk to Debbie Allen without asking about dance. Can you talk about not just the physical benefits, but the mental health effects of dancing regularly?

Debbie Allen: Oh my God, it’s amazing. In my academy, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, which is housed in the Rhimes Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, I have a program for cancer patients. I have a program for elders, 60 to 95 year olds. I have a program for battered women and their children. Dance is a transformative healing art, and it gives those who participate a sense of confidence, creativity and joy. That’s what it is. It’s just joy.

Some of those classes, I’ve taught a lot of them myself, I’m looking at all phases of dance and all different kinds of lifestyles and ages. It is just a joyous thing to do and I think everybody has the spirit of the dance in them, whether they know it or not. And if I see them, I could get it out of them. If they came to my class, I would get it out of them.

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The Healthy: Has your relationship to dance changed at all as you’ve aged?

Debbie Allen: Actually, I’ve had more work than ever. I won my last Emmy award for Dolly [Parton]’s Christmas on the Square, which I directed and choreographed. We won for best television movie and best choreography. I just finished working with Tyler Perry. He has an incredible movie coming out called Six Triple Eight, and that was my second time working with Tyler. I’m actually on my way to directing a really big movie. I can’t say it out loud right now, but it’s a big musical film.

So I feel like my experience puts me ahead of everyone. My experience puts me ahead of a lot of people because I can do so many different things, but honestly, this is why this campaign is important because if I couldn’t see, I couldn’t do what I do. My vision is a big part of my success. It starts in my mental vision, but then I have to see and say this “Like this, like that.” I have to be able to see it. So that’s why this campaign is personal to me because it has to do with what I do every day. And my mom just turned 100 years old and we celebrated her hundredth birthday, and one of the main things that I do with mom with her health is I take her to the eye doctor at least three times a year. We are on the lookout for that wet age-related macular degeneration, and it hasn’t happened. And when I take her, I go too. So these are important things.

The Healthy: Congratulations to your mother!

Debbie Allen: Right? It’s amazing. It’s amazing.

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The Healthy: So let’s talk more about some of the ways you’re staying healthy. Obviously dance is still something that you’re using to stay active. Do you have any other favorite ways to move your body?

Debbie Allen: I actually like to do hot yoga where I can sweat and crawl to the door when it’s over. I like to ride a bike, and I especially like to have time with my grandkids because I’m always taking them somewhere. I took them to Disneyland and that was like a marathon. Walking through that park was a marathon. So my grandkids keep me active as do all the wonderful young people I’m training at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. I started in middle school. I just think that it’s interesting in my lifetime right now, I’m more active in so many ways than ever

The Healthy: That is so inspirational.

Debbie Allen: Yeah, I feel blessed. I really feel blessed, and I have to say that I feel like my celebrity is only meaningful in what I can do to help my community. It is good to get a table at a restaurant, but it’s really worthy when you can bring information to people who need it. And this platform is something that affects so many people. Ninety-five percent of the people who are affected don’t even know about the diseases that I’ve talked to you about. They don’t even know. 

The Healthy: We’re glad to talk about it with you. We ask all our celebrity interviews this question: What’s the self-care habit that you can never skip?

Debbie Allen: Self-care is a lot of different things. It’s resting. It is trying to stay joyful because that combats stress. It’s drinking a lot of water, and it’s going to see my healthcare providers regularly scheduling these visits so that I can measure where I am. It’s like getting on a scale. You can just go on vacation for three weeks, but you got to get on that scale to know what your weight is doing, and you have to go and measure yourself. That’s why this program is important. It’ll make people start to measure themselves and prioritize their eye health, and their health period. Very much. That’s important.

Miranda Manier
Miranda is the Associate Editor for TheHealthy.com and The Healthy section of Reader's Digest magazine. Previously, Miranda was a producer at WNIT, the PBS affiliate in South Bend, Indiana; and the producer in residence for Minneapolis TV news KARE 11, where she won an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award for producing gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial. Miranda also interned at Chicago’s PBS station, WTTW, and worked as the managing editor at the Columbia Chronicle at Columbia College. Outside of work, Miranda enjoys acting, board games, and trying her hand at a good vegan dessert recipe. She also loves talking about TV—so tell her what you’re watching!