Journalist Maria Shriver is seen here at an event.Share on Pinterest
Journalist Maria Shriver wants women to understand their risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images
  • Journalist and advocate Maria Shriver is sharing her latest work with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Shriver’s father died due to Alzheimer’s in 2011.
  • Shriver is pushing for more gender-based research since women make up two-thirds of those with Alzheimer’s disease.

When journalist Maria Shriver learned that her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2003, she approached his diagnosis as a reporter trying to understand the disease–what it is, what it isn’t, and how best to tell the story about the condition.

At the time, the information she came across about Alzheimer’s disease didn’t mention how the condition impacts more women than men. In fact, almost two-thirds of people living with Alzheimer’s are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

“I set out to change the story so that we would come to realize that women are front and center of this disease, and now there’s a new story about Alzheimer’s,” said Shriver. “And there’s a story that includes prevention.”

Understanding the potential reasons why there are more women than men living with Alzheimer’s is an important and robust area of research, said Heather M. Snyder, PhD, vice president of medical & scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

Researchers are looking at a variety of factors that could explain why women are at higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease. These factors include genetics, brain structure, cellular function, the immune system, and the cardiovascular system.

They are also looking at how hormonal changes in women can affect their health, including the impact of the female reproductive cycle.

“Some studies have found an association between risk of dementia and age at first menstruation, age at menopause, and time between first menstruation and menopause,” Snyder told Healthline. “This research suggests that a longer reproductive period across a life course may decrease one’s risk for dementia.”

Researchers are also investigating sex-specific differences in the architecture of the brain. Scientists have found that differences in the structural and functional connections of a woman’s brain may speed the spread of tau in the brain.

Tau is a protein that clumps into tangles and may contribute to cell damage and, ultimately, cell death, explained Snyder.

In addition to biological factors, societal or cultural factors may also contribute to women’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Some studies have indicated that work and family patterns may impact the risk of memory decline.

“For example, research has found women who participated in the paid labor force between early adulthood and middle age experienced slower memory decline in late life, building on previous research that associates work and education with higher levels of cognitive engagement,” Snyder said.

Both Shriver and the Alzheimer’s Association are investing in research exploring sex and gender in Alzheimer’s disease.

Shriver founded the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement (WAM) at Cleveland Clinic, the world’s first organization devoted exclusively to women and Alzheimer’s disease.

Since 2016, WAM at Cleveland Clinic has funded $5.35 million for 48 studies at 17 leading institutions and positioned its grantees to earn an additional $83 million more in government and foundation funding.

The 2024 WAM Research Award Recipients include those working to address the disproportionate impact of Alzheimer’s disease on women by examining the role of a woman’s unique biology, genetics, and lifestyle.

“The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement exists to fund these grantees and exists to find the answer to why two-thirds of the people who get Alzheimer’s are women,” said Shriver.

In 2020, WAM partnered with the Cleveland Clinic to open the world’s first Alzheimer’s disease prevention center for women.

Shriver is passionate about the partnership because when she first got involved with promoting awareness for Alzheimer’s disease, she said prevention wasn’t part of the discussion.

“In fact, most doctors would tell you that there’s no such thing. [Alzheimer’s] was a natural part of aging, which it’s not. It happens to everybody, which it doesn’t. There’s nothing you can do, which is wrong,” said Shriver.

She began listening to doctors and researchers promoting prevention.

“[That] is what has changed my own brain health journey, is by listening to the people that I have met along the journey who have advised me to regulate my sleep, look at what I’m eating, move more, to be socially connected, to check my hearing, to pay attention to my numbers, to be progressive about hormones,” she said.

She hopes to spread the word to other women as the chief visionary and strategic advisor for the newly launched Cleveland Clinic Comprehensive Women’s Health and Research Center, which aims to redefine the narrative of women’s well-being during midlife.

“I want women to know that they have to be their own best advocate, that they have to prioritize their health…I want them not to forget about their brains when they think about their health. I want them to think about prevention,” Shriver said. “I wish I had that message when I was in my 20s or 30s or 40s.”

Engaging in healthy behaviors like exercise and stress reduction throughout life can help the brain stay healthy and reduce the chances of dementia, said Jessica Caldwell, PhD, director of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention & Research Center at Cleveland Clinic.

“While there are no guarantees, exercise, healthy foods, moderating alcohol, getting enough sleep, and avoiding health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure can make big changes in our ability to age well,” she told Healthline.

Experts believe most cases of Alzheimer’s, like other common chronic diseases, develop as a result of multiple factors rather than a single cause, said Snyder. The greatest risk factors are older age, genetics, and family history. While these can not be changed, she said risk factors such as physical activity, smoking, education, staying socially and mentally active, blood pressure, and diet can be modified to reduce risk.

“The Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention and care suggest that addressing modifiable risk factors might prevent or delay up to 40% of dementia cases,” said Snyder. “Examining ways to reduce, delay or prevent the risk of cognitive decline is a robust area of research currently.”

The brain changes that cause Alzheimer’s are thought to begin 20 years or more before symptoms start, which implies that there is a window of time to make changes and intervene in the progression of the disease, she noted.

Based on scientific evidence, the Alzheimer’s Association encourages people to incorporate 10 healthy habits that may help reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

Experts also stress that even if you have a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, it doesn’t mean you will also develop the disease.

There are multiple factors that contribute to a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s, and when diseases run in families, both genetic and non-genetic factors, including shared lifestyle habits and environmental factors play a role, said Snyder.

“Less than 2% of people with Alzheimer’s have a genetically inherited form of the disease called familial Alzheimer’s disease, which is due to variations in particular genes that predetermines Alzheimer’s,” she said. “For most individuals, genetics do not predetermine whether you will develop Alzheimer’s. They are only one component that drives risk, and additional factors play a role.”

Shriver takes this message to heart.

Although she lost her dad to Alzheimer’s, she is empowered to take control of her health the best she can. For others who fear they may develop Alzheimer’s because their parent did, Shriver says, “Adopt prevention lifestyle–doesn’t mean they’re not going to get it, but it does put them in a better position.”