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Fighting Alzheimer's

Maria Shriver’s Mission to Save Your Mind

Photo: Courtesy of Kwaku Alston

Not a day goes by that strangers don’t approach Maria Shriver to share their personal connection to Alzheimer’s Disease or ask for advice. She never shies away from the conversation.

The journalist and producer has been a passionate advocate for a cure since her father, Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. — a former Presidential advisor, ambassador and founder of the Peace Corps — was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003. He died in 2011 at age 95.

“I’m in a hurry,” says Shriver. “I’m 62. I don’t want my kids to have to end up taking care of me.” In fact, she says it’s her mission to save your mind.

The X-factor

Every 65 seconds someone in America develops Alzheimer’s. Two-thirds of those cases are women.  Those are the findings of “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s.” That’s why Shriver started the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, a nonprofit dedicated to finding out why Alzheimer’s discriminates against women.

“What’s going on in women’s lives in their 40s and 50s that, 20 years later, leads them to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s so much more frequently than men?” she asks. “Is it hormonal? Is it inflammation? X chromosome-related? Is it how women process stress? What is it?”

Shriver personally funds research and rallies the federal government to do more to find a cure. She’s testified before Congress twice. “I find myself still stomping my feet, still pushing,” she says, noting she wants corporate America to do more to help the cause too. While Shriver has seen the most impact of her Alzheimer’s work within the past two to three years, she admits, “If this is Mount Everest, we’re still on the climb.”

The scale of the mountain also make it hard to approach for many Americans. “I think people are fascinated with it but also terrified of it,” says Shriver, the former first lady of California. Over 5.7 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, but often no one wants to talk about it. Because of that silence, it’s a tough disease to raise money for, but Shriver’s going all out, including launching “Move for Minds” events at Equinox Sports Clubs, encouraging people to raise money for a cure while exercising their minds, bodies and spirits.

Caring for caregivers

Nearly 16 million family members and friends are providing unpaid care for their loved ones with Alzheimer’s. It’s demanding, stressful work, and Shriver says it’s time to make caregiving a priority.

“I always say Alzheimer’s is a mind-blowing disease to the person who gets it; it’s mind blowing to the entire family and everybody who knows that person; and it’s mind and body crushing to the person who’s in the caregiving role,” she says.

Two-thirds of caregivers in the United States are women, but those women are juggling a lot of roles: provider, parent, spouse, worker and more.

“How can corporate America help the caregiver? How can all of us help the caregiver? What does the caregiver need? What does the person with Alzheimer’s need?” asks Shriver. “I think they both need care. That’s the thing they have in common.”

She urges family and friends to help caregivers as much as possible. Give them a break regularly so they can take care of their own mental, physical and spiritual health.

She encourages everyone — individuals and caregivers included — to take care of themselves too. “Your brain health is connected to your body health and there are things you can do to train it, keep it healthy,” says Shriver, noting resting the brain, exercising and getting seven or more hours of sleep nightly are just a few key ways to baby your brain.

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