A Conversation with Maria Shriver, Boots-on-the-Ground Advocate for Women’s Brains
Service is in Maria Shriver‘s blood. She’s the niece of President Kennedy, daughter of Eunice Shriver (founder of the Special Olympics), former First Lady of California, and an award-winning journalist.
What you might not be familiar with is Maria’s immense commitment to raising Alzheimer’s awareness. Her Alzheimer’s research and advocacy began when her father, Sargent Shriver (founder 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.
KSL partner and Redondo Beach Executive Director Tanya Walker Wirth welcomed everyone to this extraordinary dialogue.
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 similar emphasis on the group most affected by this brain-damaging disease: women, who comprise two-thirds of Alzheimer’s diagnoses.
Says neurologist Freddi Segal-Gidan, “Women’s brains work differently than men’s brains. A recent preliminary study in Los Angeles showed that there may be more connections in pathways in women’s brains, and those connections may actually lead to more development of the abnormal proteins that are involved in Alzheimer’s disease. Women may be predisposed for the propagation of some of these proteins.”
There may also be a protective element in estrogen, notes Segal-Giden. Just as post-menopausal women are more prone to heart disease once estrogen levels decline, the same messengers may be involved in protecting the pre-menopausal brain.
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.
Smart Ways to Keep Women’s Brains Sharp
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, which 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, such as those our Director of Dining, Morissa Harris, prepares for the residents of Kensington Park. Chef Morissa grew up cooking alongside her dad, so she knows how to create palate pleasing, nourishing meals for others — especially seniors. We also maintain our own herb/produce garden, from which Morissa selects appropriate items to incorporate into upcoming menus, in collaboration with Kensington Park residents.
- Exercise, which WAM’s Move for Minds experts describe as the best way to stay mentally sharp as we age. Active bodies and active minds go together like peanut butter and jelly. And pairing movement with music radically improves your cognitive flexibility, says our music therapist, Melissa Pate. The research bears her out: in one study, seniors who danced regularly had a 75 percent lower risk of dementia compared with people who did not dance at all. And in a groundbreaking documentary, elders with memory loss who had been unresponsive came alive when they heard the music of their youth through headphones.
- Sleep! A good night’s sleep activates the recently identified glymphatic system, which cleans our brains of the proteins that cause Alzheimer’s disease.
- An Optical Exam. It may surprise you to learn that an eye exam can detect Alzheimer’s years before it shows up clinically. Glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy are all linked to cardiovascular disease — and this correlates to a 20-44 percent higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
- 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.
The Last Word
As a dedicated memory care community, we understand the challenges and concerns that accompany Alzheimer’s and other forms of memory loss, and have designed a state-of-the-art, personalized memory care program that benefits the unique needs of each resident and their family.
Even if you do not have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, it’s smart to be aware of the risks, says Maria, 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.