Debbie Allen has had a distinguished career as an actor, dancer, teacher, choreographer, producer and director. Renowned for her portrayal of Lydia Grant on the television series Fame, she has earned both Emmy and Tony Awards for her acting and has directed and produced such beloved TV programs as Grey’s Anatomy, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Girlfriends, to name a few. She has choreographed for such artists as Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson, and has served as an artist-in-residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for over 15 years.
Allen is now lending her star power to a cause that is truly close to her heart. She has signed on as a spokesperson for the Join The Pace Makers Campaign, a national initiative focused on raising awareness about the potentially harmful interactions between pacemakers and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.
A personal stake
Allen’s own heart is healthy, but her family has a congenital history of heart disease. She lost her father and aunt, and a close friend is living with a pacemaker. She hopes sharing her story will spur others into action, especially in the African-American community.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African-American adults are more likely to be diagnosed with coronary heart disease, and they are more likely to die from heart disease. Although African-American adults are 40 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, they are 10 percent less likely than whites to have their blood pressure under control.
“When you’re talking about losing your father, you aunt dying in your arms — those are very emotional things to talk about, and these are not things that I take lightly by any means,” she tells BET.com. “So, it’s that important to me that I am joining the campaign and beating the bushes to get attention so that people will pay attention to this.”
The pros and cons of pacemakers
Heart arrhythmia, or irregular heart rhythm, is often treated by implanting an artificial pacemaker, which regulates the heartbeat through electrical impulses. It is a small device implanted under the skin, most often below the collarbone on the left or right side of the chest.
However, because some types of pacemakers can interact negatively with MRI technology, people with pacemakers are often denied MRI access, which could potentially compromise the diagnosis and treatment of other serious health issues, including cancer, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
New technology has allowed for the development of pacemakers that are compatible with MRIs, and Allen has been engaged as a spokesperson to spread the word. She is especially glad to do so because one of her closest friends has a pacemaker, but needs to be able to undergo MRI scans safely.
“I would want people to be proactive about their health care,” Allen says. “You just need to look into your options so that you’re well-informed.”
Healthy lives make for healthy hearts
Obesity and high blood pressure — which are especially prevalent among African-Americans — increase the risk of developing heart disease.
Allen also preaches the gospel of prevention, which is largely a matter of healthy eating and regular exercise, as well as regular medical checkups.
At 61, she is still active and vigorous, and she stays healthy by eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, avoiding fried foods and indulging in treats only occasionally.
Even with her grueling traveling schedule and new projects — including producing and starring in her production of Hot Chocolate Nutcracker in Los Angeles this December — the avid dancer keeps fit by exercising every day and keeps hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
There’s no indication that she plans to slow down anytime soon.
(Photo: OMAR REYES/Landov)