Maria Shriver

Q&A: Maria Shriver

Her urgent message: It’s time for a brain health renaissance.

Aesthetically speaking, brains are not nearly as sexy as abs. But ensuring your mind stays in the same shape as your physique is crucial to optimizing your life now—and warding off diseases in the future.

The stats speak for themselves: Someone gets diagnosed with Alzheimer’s every 65 seconds. That’s based on newly-released data that shaved a second off the previous number, 66. While the numbers seem gloomier, there’s more optimistic new science that further supports what The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement (WAM), founded by Maria Shriver, has been preaching: Women in a study who prioritized fitness were 90 percent less likely to get dementia later in life.

The shared belief in the power of fitness led Shriver, WAM, and Equinox to create Move For Minds, a series of events and panel discussions that will run throughout the month of June, Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month. Now in its fourth year, with sponsors like Cole Haan, they’re also introducing a social media challenge and a new version of Equinox’s popular MetCon class, MetConM.

Furthermore spoke to Shriver about Move For Minds, the crunches you can do for your brain, and the most exciting research currently happening in this space. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision. 

What are some of the most important things for 20- and 30-year-olds to do now to keep their minds healthy and ward off disease?

Just knowing that the brain itself begins to change and deal with information in different ways starting at a very young age [as young as 25], would really encourage people who are in their 20s and 30s to start thinking of their brain in the same way that they think of their thighs, their triceps, their abdomens. And what are the crunches that you can do for your brain? How can you eat for your brain? It's never too early to start thinking about the overall fitness of your brain.

You recently turned 60. What would you go back and tell your 30-year-old self about brain health?

I would tell myself that you could begin to do things now that will improve the overall health of your brain. Young people today are really lucky; we know so much more about cognitive health and we can see into the brain in ways we couldn’t even five years ago. I feel sorry for myself that it wasn't out there sooner for me, but I want to make sure it's out there sooner for others.

At the Move for Minds event last year, you talked about aerobic exercise as particularly beneficial for the brain. Has the research evolved at all since then?

That's still the main thing: exercise, exercise, exercise. Even if you can’t do aerobic exercise, even if you're not doing interval training, just to be moving is a step in the right direction.

In your new book, I’ve Been Thinking…, you talk about the importance of inner strength. How does that impact overall wellness?

It's one thing to be physically strong but it's a very different thing to be internally strong. And I think both are important. I'll even add to that mental strength, emotional strength, spiritual strength. I think all add up to a meaningful life. You like to call it a high-performance life. Having a practice of developing inner fortitude is just as important as having a practice that takes you to the gym. You’ll need the former to navigate the twists and turns of life. They both go hand-in-hand. Meditation, a prayer, going to church, being of service—these practices develop your inner GPS or inner strength.

How does leading a life of meaning have a direct impact on brain health and preventing Alzheimer's?

I’ve been to the Blue Zones and people who have a spiritual life, inner fortitude, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning that they get from their work or by being a service in their community, are the happiest people. They're the ones who actually have community and feel excited about getting up and taking on the day. They're not people who are motivated by money or ego, but they're people who believe that something that they're doing is bigger than them.

Are there any areas of research that you’re particularly excited about?

I'm really excited that Bill Gates has stepped into the space. He’s recognized that this is a problem of global proportion, that it is a national emergency, and he is, quote, one of the smartest people in the world, endquote. He says that this is important to find a cure for, important to look where we haven't looked, important to collect data, important to promote clinical trials. I think it's really positive that corporate America, certainly led by Equinox, is jumping into this game. A company that believes that a high-performance lifestyle includes the brain is really positive and really exciting to me.

It's exciting to me to get researchers looking at women's brains for the first time and getting them to recognize and admit that women's brains do function differently and deserve to be looked at.

What do you think the media is getting wrong, and what are they getting right when reporting in this space?

I think most people just think ‘If I don't have that gene then I don't have to worry,’ or ‘It's something that I'll worry about when I'm 80.’ I think the vast majority of people haven't really caught on to the fact that there are things that you can do today that might help your cognitive health in the future. So I think we still have a huge way to go in terms of education. 

When we're inundated with information that we swipe through at warp speed, how do you think we can make this message heard?

I think it's partnering and educating people. It's going into different forums so you reach different people in the gym, reach some people in a yoga studio, reach some people at a conference. I think it's a matter of continuing to try to cover multiple platforms to go where people already are to catch their imagination, to give them things that blow their mind so that they remember it and give them hope all simultaneously. You have to give people enough information, give them practical information, give them hope, and encourage them to change present behavior with the goal that it will help their future.

Photo: Azusa Takano