Her beloved father, Andrew Arthur Allen Sr., was diabetic and passed away from the disease at 63 years young. He always told Debbie to keep dancing. “Just keep dancing Deborah Kaye and you won’t get this,” recalls the award-winning actress, dancer and director.
And while Allen, 73, is not dancing the six and seven hours a day she used to do, she doesn’t play about staying active. “I’m moving around,” she says with a laugh during a video call. “I’m jumping around with these young people here at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. I take yoga. I do my steps and I go to my eye health care giver.”
Seeing an eye doctor regularly is important to Allen, who was diagnosed as pre-diabetic a few years ago.
Pre-diabetes is the precursor to Type 2 diabetes, and since the disease runs in her family, she’d “been on the lookout for it” her whole life. During a regular checkup, Allen discovered that her blood sugar levels were higher than normal. She knew it was time to make serious changes to her lifestyle and diet, especially when she learned that this preventable disease could also impact her eyesight. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of new blindness in the United States according to the National Eye Institute.
While many think changes in vision are normal as they age, for communities of color, people 60-plus, diabetics and those at risk of developing diabetes, there’s much more at stake. The risk of being diagnosed with retinal disease or blindness is significant. In 2019, the JAMA Ophthalmology journal noted almost 20 million Americans are living with some form of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) 2. If left untreated, AMD can lead to wet AMD and rapid vision loss.
This is why Allen partnered with Prevent Blindness and Regeneron to launch the Gr8 Eye Movement. This awareness campaign addresses the gaps in people’s information regarding the diabetes and eye health connection and identifies the eighth of every month as a day to check your vision.
“Eight, when you put it on its side, looks like two eyes. So, on the eighth of the month, let your eye health be your priority,” says Allen. “Retinal disease is not something you can see like a hurricane. You see a hurricane and know you’re at risk. You don’t know what’s happening in the back of the eye. There’s no big, big warning.”
People can visit gr8eyemovement.com for eye health resources like the Amsler grid. Allen says to stick this printable tool on your refrigerator to test your vision at home. Grab your glasses (if you wear them), stand a foot away from the grid, cover your right eye and focus on the dot in the center of the grid. Repeat these steps on the left eye. If any of the lines on the Amsler grid are wavy, dark, broken or distorted, mark the places on the paper and schedule an appointment with your eye doctor ASAP.
Such provisions are essential to saving your sight. They’re also key to living a longer, healthier life, like Allen’s mother, Vivian Ayers Allen, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. “We are so grateful for that. This is a benchmark that my sister [Phylicia Rashad] and brothers think about, like will we get to see 100?” says Allen, smiling. “And mommy is seeing—her eyesight is so good at this point in her life and that’s beautiful.”
Visit gr8eyemovement.com to download resources and sign up for eye-health reminders.