Maria Shriver on the Importance of a Brain-Healthy Lifestyle and Eating to Fight Dementia

On the day of our call, Maria Shriver started her morning with a simple thought: “I was lying in my bed, finishing my prayer, and I was like, Wow, I will never be this young again as I am today.” She leveraged the mini epiphany as inspiration. “How do I make this day matter? How do I make it incredible? How lucky am I that I can actually get up on my feet? So many people can't walk. They have all kinds of problems.”

If Shriver sounds a bit like a motivational speaker it’s because, well, she’s motivated. Many know the former First Lady of California as a member of the Kennedy family through her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, or as an award-winning journalist who has worked everywhere from Today to Dateline and beyond. But she’s also a fierce advocate for women’s health and the founder of the Women's Alzheimer's Movement (WAM).

“People always ask me, ‘Why are you interested in women's health?’ And then I say, ‘Because I'm a woman and my health is important to me,’” Shriver said.

She zeroed in on brain health in particular after her father, diplomat Sargent Shriver, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003. While learning about his condition and helping with his care, she noticed that a disproportionate number of women seemed to be suffering from the disease. “Being a reporter and looking for the story below the story helped me go, ‘Wait a minute, there's something not right here,’” Shriver recalled. “And when I went to the people in charge, I was always told, ‘Oh, no, you just think that [it impacts women more] because women live longer,’ and that was always the default position.”

In 2010, an undeterred Shriver partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association to publish a report which revealed that two out of three brains that develop Alzheimer’s belong to women. When she learned that no research existed to explain why, WAM was born.

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Now 68, Shriver is a world-renowned advocate who walks the walk when it comes to practicing a brain-healthy lifestyle. “I try to meditate every morning, keep moving, keep exercising. I try to eat better,” she says. “It used to be, ‘If I eat that, I'll gain weight. Now it's, ‘If I eat that, I won't be able to think clearly, maybe that'll affect my brain in a negative way.’ So, everything I do now is with an eye toward improving or keeping my brain health from going backwards.”

On an afternoon in May, long after her enviable morning routine had ended, Shriver hopped on Zoom call with Parade to discuss WAM, the organization’s latest survey with Parade and Cleveland Clinic and why spending time with family, including her four grown kids with ex-husband Arnold Schwarzenegger and their two young grandchildren, is key to her well-being.

<p>Kwaku Alston</p>

Kwaku Alston

Nicole Pajer: Changing the way the medical community thinks about a particular disease takes a lot of tenacity. Where did you get that drive to push against the grain?

Maria Shriver: Four brothers. But also, growing up at a time when women were not allowed to do a lot of the things that they're allowed to do today. I grew up in a Catholic family and I was the only one not allowed to be an altar boy. Then I looked at the news, and I didn't see any women anchors. Everywhere I looked, women weren't in positions of authority, of power, of decision-making. And I was like, “Well, why is that?” And then certainly having a mother who said, “You can do everything your brothers can do. You can be anything you want to be. Go out there and be tough and do what they're doing.” I think it was a lot of that all at the same time.

What’s a day in the life of Maria Shriver like?

I try to get up between 5:30 and 6. I usually pray before I put my feet on the ground, and then I get up, I make my coffee, I do meditation. And then I exercise in some way, no matter where I am. If I'm going to New York, and I'm going to do the Today show, I get up at 4:30 and go to the gym for at least a half hour, just to be moving.

I used to always eat at 8 at night. Now I try to eat at 6:30. I try to go to bed early, and consistently. So, by 9 or 9:30, I try to be asleep. I try to make sure that I am focused on not having a lot of stress or chaos around me. That's not something I used to pay attention to, and I ended up in kind of chaotic and stressful situations. I still have a battle with stress. I still need to streamline my days better than I do. But I'm very focused on my exercise, the community that I am in, learning, movement, sleep, food.

Do you have some guilty pleasures in there too? Like some TV binging?

I have different series that I'll watch, but I don't watch TV by myself; I'm not somebody who binges a series on their own. I read. I go to bed. I'm tired. I have friends who stay up till midnight, and they're watching some series. Everybody seems to be watching a crime show. I'm not doing that because it scares me. But if someone comes over for dinner and then they want to watch something, I'm all for it. Something that’s fun or light.

How much news do you consume? Because that can be stressful.

I do watch the news for like 15-20 minutes. I used to live it and now I try to put boundaries on it because I think what you consume matters.

Is that why you formed The Sunday Paper? [The weekly newsletter is billed as “a digital publication that's on a mission to elevate the voices and ideas of those trying to move humanity forward.”]

That’s a real labor of love. It’s a journalistic endeavor that helps people stay above the noise. It helps people live meaningful lives, stay informed without riling them up. I try to offer up something that I felt didn't exist for me when I was younger.

What do you wish you knew then?

When I was in my 30s or 40s, nobody was talking about brain health. We weren’t connecting meditation to brain health. We weren't connecting exercise to brain health. It was always, “Exercise to get skinny.” It’s only in the last, I would say six, seven years that we've been talking about the pillars of a brain-healthy lifestyle. And that's a huge change. Some of the 30%, 40%, even 50% of cases of Alzheimer's or dementia could be reduced by adopting healthy lifestyle choices.

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How are you approaching aging?

It’s always hard in the public eye because people are like, “Why do you wear your hair like that? Why do you look like that? Why do you have a wrinkle? Why didn't you fix your face? Why do you fix your face? Why do you have that makeup on? Why don't you wear makeup? Why are you in those leggings?”

You have to really figure out who you want to be, what you want to be doing. My mother always strove to be interesting, so I try to figure out, “How can I be interesting as I age? How can I be informed as I age? How can I be curious as I age?” And I try to spend less time on thinking about what everybody else thinks. I try to focus on I'm alive. I have girlfriends who are not. The idea that you can age and be in good health is the ultimate goal. The idea that you can age and be surrounded with people you love, that you have friends that have lasted for decades, that's successful aging as far as I can come up with.

You have four kids, and you all seem so close. And it’s really cool that you and Arnold have maintained a good relationship in terms of getting together with everyone. What's the secret to pulling that off?

The secret to pulling anything off is intention and focus and goals. If you love people and want the best for your children, you have to figure out how to give the best to your children. Arnold and I have always been a team. And our goal is that our children grow up and feel loved and feel like a priority.

Every family is different, every get together is different. And it just depends on the event, the day, the year. It’s also important that my children also know that they can go live the lives that they want to live, not the life that perhaps their parents want them to live.

I hear that the parenting never stops.

Parenting is always a learning process. You have to be attuned to who you're parenting and what their needs are. They may need you. They may not need you. They may want your advice. They may not want it.

You daughter Katherine is mom with husband Chris Pratt to daughters Lyla, who is almost 4, and Eloise, who is 2. How much are you loving being a grandmother?

It's an incredible experience. People always say, “Isn't it so much better than being a mom?” And I'm like, “No, actually.” I really loved when my kids were little. And I love being a grandmother. I love watching my grandchildren. I love thinking about their mom when she was that age. So, it's a bit of going down memory lane and then thinking ahead.

My grandchildren are definitely a motivator for my health. I go every week to the same park that I took their mother to, and it's a blessing to be able to have that experience.

You don't seem like someone who's going to retire and hang up your hat anytime soon. What is something that you haven't done that you would like to do next?

I am not thinking of next. I'm focusing on where I'm at right here, right now. And making sure that the work I am doing is successful and is executed with excellence.

Speaking of: WAM teamed up with the Cleveland Clinic to open an Alzheimer’s Prevention Center for women in 2020, and partnered with Parade on a national survey on brain health awareness. What are some of the key findings?

The survey showed that women still don't know that they're at increased risk for Alzheimer's. Part of the goal of WAM was to let women know that they were vulnerable to Alzheimer's, that their health was on the line. So the survey I think shows that we need to do more education. We need to talk about women being vulnerable, to talk about the steps that they can take to improve their brain health and how they might orchestrate their own lives to make sure their own affairs are in order. Getting Alzheimer's is not inevitable. It's not a normal part of aging. You can be in the driver's seat.

The survey also said that young people are very interested in their brain health, unlike generations before. I think maybe that's coming out of COVID. That's perhaps coming out of increased awareness about mental health. And the survey said that when people who are well known speak about brain health, when people talk about being diagnosed with Alzheimer's and what they're doing, that has an impact. That gets people's attention. This is all really good news. It's hopeful news. It's inspiring.

Do you feel like we'll find a cure in this lifetime?

I've got to believe that. That's what keeps me going.

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