It’s Giving Day on Tuesday, November 29 and Maria Shriver, a fierce, longtime Alzheimer’s advocate, wants everyone to make a donation in support.    

“When I first got involved with Alzheimer’s disease, it was hopeless,” she says. In 2003 her father, Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which now afflicts 1 in 9 Americans over age 65. “Nobody knew what it was. There was so much shame and fear. People were terrified.”

Enhancing awareness

Since then, Shriver has fought tirelessly to raise awareness and money to fight Alzheimer’s. Her contributions include producing an Emmy-winning documentary series about the disease with HBO, producing the Oscar-winning movie “Still Alice,” which starred Julianne Moore as a professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and advocating for research on why more women than men get the disease.

Now, more than a decade later, Shriver says, “You can see renewed hope and excitement. Alzheimer’s has gone from a place of invisibility to visibility.”

Shriver is especially passionate about making people who aren’t elderly aware of the disease. “Our partnership with Equinox Fitness Centers is at the forefront,” she says. “The brain and body are connected. How people live their lives can affect their brain health — things like diet, mediation, sleep. You can continue to train your brain like your body.”

Alzheimer’s and women

“This is the next glass ceiling for women,” Shriver says, pointing out that two-thirds of Alzheimer’s victims are women, yet researchers have only recently begun to investigate why the disease afflicts women so disproportionately. “It might be stress. It might be hormones. There are a lot of theories, but no specific conclusions.”

Shriver started the Challenge 66 initiative as part of the women’s Alzheimer’s movement. “Every 66 seconds, a new brain gets this disease and two-thirds are women. We’re asking people to give 66 — cents, dollars, $660. It will go to gender-based research.” The initiative will get a big push on Giving Tuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving (November 29), when nonprofits ask people to focus on charitable giving.

“Every Alzheimer’s researcher I’ve talked to wants to do more but lacks funding,” Shriver says. Indeed, the National Institutes of Health gives just $800 million in funding for Alzheimer’s research, compared to $5 billion for AIDS and $6 billion for cancer. Shriver is determined to close that shortfall.

“My brain has always been my greatest asset,” she suggests. “I’m hoping it will help save other people’s minds.”

For more information on Challenge 66, visit donate.thewomensalzheimersmovement.org