A Conversation with Maria Shriver: Raising Women’s Awareness of Their Alzheimer’s Risk
Maria Shriver comes from a legacy of service. She’s the niece of President Kennedy, the daughter of Eunice Shriver (who founded the Special Olympics), former First Lady of California, and an award-winning journalist. And those are just some of her exceptional credentials.
But you might not be aware of Maria’s greatest service achievement: raising Alzheimer’s awareness. Her Alzheimer’s research and advocacy began when her father, Sargent Shriver (founding director of the Peace Corps, Jobs Corps, and Head Start) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003.
Shriver subsequently wrote a children’s book to explain Alzheimer’s disease to children whose grandparents are experiencing memory loss, produced a documentary series on the subject, and testified before Congress in support of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act. Yet she didn’t stop there.
She began to hear from women whose mothers had Alzheimer’s, in disproportionate numbers — almost two-thirds of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are women. Shriver founded the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement (WAM) to find out why.
WAM and The Kensington Collaborate
On October 10, 2019, Maria Shriver teamed up with renowned neuroscientists Joshua Grill, PhD from the UC Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments & Neurological Disorders, and Freddi Segal-Gidan, PA, PhD from the Rancho Los Amigos/USC California Alzheimer’s Disease Center, to discuss brain health research and advocacy at The Kensington Redondo Beach.
Because brain health is so critical — and because nutrition plays a key role in maintaining mental fitness — chefs from Kensington senior living communities nationwide participated in this landmark event, even if they had to travel across the country to do so, such as our own Chef Norm.
We’re extremely grateful for the 12 sponsors who generously supported our initiative to improve brain health:
- Lancaster Pollard
- Home Care Assistance
- Optimal Hospice Care
- W.E. O’Neil
- City National Bank, An RBC Company
- Dina Tonielli Consulting
- Klang & Associates Interior Design
- Healthpro Heritage
- F&M Bank
- The Promotions Dept.
Why Alzheimer’s Research and Advocacy Is Crucial Now
Someone develops Alzheimer’s disease every 65 seconds. Currently, more than 5.8 million people have Alzheimer’s in the United States. By 2050, this number is projected to reach a staggering 14 million people.
But while the focus on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s has accelerated, there hasn’t been a concomitant emphasis on the group most affected by this brain-damaging disease: women, who comprise the vast majority of Alzheimer’s diagnoses. This is what the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement is determined to discover. Through its campaigns and initiatives, WAM:
- Informs women of their increased risk and empowers them to take control of their cognitive health
- Educates the public about the connection between brain health and lifestyle choices
- Influences scientists to conduct women-based research
- Inspires foundations, philanthropists and corporations to support this research
- Shares stories of families caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s
- Partners with organizations to provide caregiver relief grants.
How to Start the Conversation About Alzheimer’s
Well-meaning friends of those who are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s may say, “Call me if you need anything.”
But no one ever reaches out to say they need something, states neuroscientist Freddi Segal-Gidan. It’s incumbent on friends and loved ones to make a specific offer of support to family members who are facing Alzheimer’s. For example:
“I see how hard you’re working, and I think it would be great if you could go to a support group. I will stay here and watch your spouse for you every Monday night. I will take him out to dinner so you can go where you need to go.”
WAM gives out “respite grants” to caregivers, says Maria, who may use it to get their hair done, or go to the doctor themselves — basic needs we all take for granted but that are impossible to attend to when we’re caring for someone else full-time.
Smart Ways to Keep Alzheimer’s At Bay Every Day
While there is not yet a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, how a senior lives can either help to slow memory decline — or contribute to poor cognitive health.
Some of the memory loss “mimics” include: a TBI (traumatic brain injury, such as can result from a fall), poor nutrition, lack of exercise, undetected infection such as a UTI, and social isolation, which can lead to depression. So starting with what we can control makes a huge difference in cognitive health, say Shriver and the neuroscientists who participated in our conversation.
Top tips for brain health include:
- Healthy, nutritious meals. A number of factors affect an older adult’s nutritional health, including metabolism, digestion, elimination, and lifestyle. For every year over age 40, our metabolism slows down. At the same time, we make less stomach acid and tend to drink less water, since thirst awareness also decreases with age. This combination means how and what seniors eat is critically important for them to receive optimal nutrition, which is a cornerstone of brain health.
- Exercise. WAM’s Move for Minds experts describe physical exercise as the best way to stay mentally sharp as we age. Active bodies and active minds go together like peanut butter and jelly. Whether you want to build strong bones and supple joints, or simply have more energy, moving your body makes the difference. Dancing, especially, has been found to be extremely beneficial to older brains: in one study, seniors who danced regularly had a 75 percent lower risk of dementia compared with people who did not dance at all.
- Engagement and enjoyment. Activities and friendships have been shown to reduce stress, preserve wellness, keep the mind sharp, and increase feelings of self worth, especially for seniors. Our Life Enrichment team creates an activities calendar that can keep seniors busy from morning till night. We appreciate that everyone has something to contribute, whether it’s musical ability, a passion for cooking, or a penchant for golf.
- Sleep! A good night’s sleep activates the recently identified glymphatic system, which cleans our brains of the proteins that cause Alzheimer’s disease while we sleep.
The Last Word
Even if you do not have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, it’s vital to be aware of the risks, says Maria Shriver, because Alzheimer’s can begin developing 20 years or more before symptoms appear.
She says, “My father was one of the most brilliant people on the planet. When someone like that begins to repeat himself, lose things, and act differently, at first you say ‘Well, he’s getting older’ or ‘He’s just distracted.’ I’m trying to educate people: When you notice things changing, you must act.”
To experience the night in its entirety, watch the full video below, and hear from Maria herself on how continuous efforts will work towards a brighter future in the fight to end Alzheimer’s.