Attacking Alzheimer’s Disease: A Special Edition Interview with Maria Shriver

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

In this special edition, double length episode, Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen are joined by the former first lady of California, Maria Shriver. After losing her father to Alzheimer’s, Maria founded The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement to help in research and awareness of this devastating disease. In this discussion, Dr. Daniel Amen, Tana, and Maria touch on the risk factors for Alzheimer’s and what you can do to prevent it in your family. Maria also talks about Move For Minds, a special Alzheimer’s benefit event held in eight cities across the country.


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Dr. Daniel Amen: So we are very blessed to have a special guest, Maria Shriver that we couldn't be more excited about. She really doesn't need an introduction. She's an award winning journalist, author of six bestselling books, former First Lady of California and our friend and really a warrior in helping people sustain and keep their minds.

Tana Amen: We're so happy to be able to call her friend and also have her join us in our fight against Alzheimer's. Welcome Maria.

Maria Shriver: Yes thank you both and thank you for describing me. I like that description as your friend because I'm honored to be that. I'm honored to be a fellow warrior and really glad that you've asked me to talk with you today.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So talk to us about how you got passionate about this fight. I know you have a personal story that really motivated you.

Maria Shriver: Well my day, you're right. Obviously my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2003 and died in 2011 and so I kind of came into it like many people as a child of it and then found that there weren't many you know good books out there about it. So I wrote a children's book and then as a journalist I wanted to do a television show about it and I couldn't find anybody and then I pitched HBO for a while because I thought it would be a good television show. We ended up doing a big thing called The Alzheimer's Project which I think is still very relevant today about care giving, about research, about they adapted my children's book and about kind of the world of Alzheimer's. I've gone to run marches. I started The Women's Alzheimer's, executive produced Still Alice. I testified in the Congress. So I've tried to kind of approach this like you you know from all different angles trying to develop a movement and get people focused on this disease what we need to know, what's true, what's not true and what they can do today to safeguard their brains.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So what are some of the biggest lessons that you've learned that you think are important for people to know?

Maria Shriver: Well I think yeah, I was just saying this yesterday or Sunday in Dallas when I was speaking I wish I knew at 40 what I know now and now I'm 61. So I wish I had known about the importance of brain health. I wish I had known about cognition, strengthening cognition. I wish I had known how deeply connected sugar is to this disease. I wish I had known about the benefits of meditation. So I think the things that are exciting to me about this space now is not to focus on all the trials that have failed but the things that we do know now that are lifestyle related.

I, you know, I think people were all focused on oh my God you know do you have an Alzheimer's gene, there's no hope and you know, etc etc and so I really now try to take the conversation and flip it and say you know, your brain health is as important as your body's health. You know, there are things out there you can do to strengthen your cognition. You can adapt a mind healthy diet. You can rest your brain. You must rest your brain, the connection of sleep, how I manifest stress. These are all things as you well know better than I do that you know that impact your brain and your mind and I wish I had known that 20 years ago. I don't know if I would've paid attention but I think I might've.

Tana Amen: So it's really obvious to me. I was at your event last year, Move for Minds and you're such a beautiful woman. You're so vibrant and you know i mean 61 is you know not, it's a great age. It's not old by any stretch but you look so much younger and so much more vibrant and that's clearly a result of your lifestyle. So ...

Maria Shriver: I, you know, I've got to say thank you but I know all of this and I'm always interested in how do you take knowledge and how does it become behavioral. Right? So I know sugar's bad for me and there are many people who even think that Alzheimer's is type three diabetes but you know I still eat cookies or I still eat things with sugar in them but I'm more conscious of it today. Somehow kind of making it clear to me that that impacted my brain has had more impact on me than somebody telling me sugar was bad for my thighs.

Tana Amen: I know, right.

Maria Shriver: I don't why, but I've often said you know if women paid as much attention to their brain as we do to our lips or eyes and our thighs I think we might've worked out what causes Alzheimer's but I have found in myself certain things that people told me, you know this diet is good for you but now when someone tells me this diet is good or this way of eating is good for your brain I'm paying more attention than you know adapting a certain diet for losing weight. So I've, I started meditating. I've really cut back on sugar. I have not eliminated it all together. I wish I could say I had. I pay more attention, my kids pay a lot of attention to labels and sugar content in the foods that I buy. I'm constantly buying things that are being thrown out by my children but who are very aware of all of this.

Dr. Daniel Amen: I love that.

Tana Amen: That's awesome.

Dr. Daniel Amen: If you have a higher risk it means they have a higher risk and you know I've been a psychiatrist for 35 years and I used to study children and grandchildren of alcoholics because that was very personal to me and so I always told my kids, If you don't drink you're not going to have a problem. If you drink you could have a huge problem and now because we know the connection between sugar and it's not just sugar. It's foods that turn to sugar like bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, and sugar that they're what elevate our fasting blood sugar levels and that erodes blood vessels. So and my grandfather was a candy maker and so sugar was a real problem for me until I realized it was not giving me what I really wanted, longevity, energy, health, memory, a good mind, and I'm vain as could be so I like it that I can be in the same sized jeans that I was in high school.

Maria Shriver: Well that's actually funny Dan. That hasn't as a woman you would think that would be the prime motivator for me and for some reason that wasn't but losing my mind is a huge motivator.

Tana Amen: Well, especially if you've had someone in your family that you've been effected by and had to see that then it becomes very personal.

Maria Shriver: I think it's just that I meet so many families everyday who come up to me and you know who don't understand what's happening to their parent or sibling or and I think you know having, I had a mother who had strokes kind of at the same time that my dad was being diagnosed.

Tana Amen: Wow.

Maria Shriver: I had had, you know anybody who has children knows that they all learn in different ways and so kind of understanding how certain brains retain information versus others, I think that opened up for me a huge curiosity about the brain, you know what was going on in a child's brain that might be similar to someone who is trying to retain information after a stroke and who was losing information through Alzheimer's and so I've really tried to kind of be curious, approach this as a journalist, ask questions and then that's what really lead me to focusing on women because I kept saying I think there are more women who have it. I think there are more women and they would, you know everybody was like, no no, that's not true. It's only because women live longer and then we did the big Shriver report and lo and behold you know, there are more women and then I would go around and ask doctors why are there, why is it more prevalent in women and they would go like well I don't know and I'd go well can we research this?

Can we do some studies on it? They're like oh sure, okay, we'll start doing that. So I tried to get the Alzheimer's Association to develop a women's research fund there and I've gone to other places to ask them to develop funds to study women and that's really what Move for Minds is doing is trying to fund research into women, how do they process inflammation differently, our chromosomes are different. Does that have an impact? Our hormones are different. You know, how does being premenopausal impact the brain? How does menopause impact the brain? Should we take hormones? Should we not? Is that good for cognition? Is it not? So I have a lot more questions than I have answers but I like throwing these questions out to people like yourselves and others and say come on, let's find the answer. If we've looked in the plaque and tangle section and that's come up empty let's look over here.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well I have a new book I'm working on called Memory Rescue and I actually I list the 11 major risk factors for it and then how to attack them. So it's never going to be a pill.

Maria Shriver: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It's going to go, it's a multifactorial illness that is going to need a multifactorial cause. So we call it fighting the war on multiple fronts and all those things you mentioned are important.

Maria Shriver: So that as you know Dr. Amen that's kind of different when I first got into this fight 14 years ago there was like the hope that there was a pill that you know they were looking for a solution. It's only recently where people have begun to say you know it's more complex than we imagined. It's multi-pronged. We're going to have to attack it from the lifestyle place from the you know strengthening the brain from cognition place. We're going to have to affect the diet. We're going to affect stress. So that to me is really interesting but that's new.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It's hopeful. Actually when I wrote Preventing Alzheimer's in 2005 that's the exact approach we took but people thought we were crazy and you know maybe we are but it seems, did you see the Scientific American April where the cover is the first success against Alzheimer's and it's the finger study out of Finland that showed really smart dietary interventions plus exercise plus cognitive training, significant improvements in people who are headed into cognitive impairment compared to people who weren't. It was a 12 hundred person study.

Maria Shriver: That's exciting and that's exciting because those are things that people can do now and I myself you know I as I said I'm always interested in what is it, how do we get people who know the information to actually change their behavior and that's oftentimes where I find myself out talking about all of this is you know amassing all the information and then I don't have time to do what I'm talking about. So I'm you know really trying to figure out how to plan my own life. I have children. I'm working. I'm trying to you know I run between NBC, The Women's Alzheimer's Movement by Architects of Change Conversation Series and my Sunday paper and do I have enough time to do the exercise, the physical exercise I need and want to do, the meditation I need and want to do, the cognitive exercises I need and want to do. You know, so it's I think also changing the way we work and how we value rest and so I think this is a much bigger more holistic conversation we need to be having.

Dr. Daniel Amen: You know soon as you see your brain, so this is the thing that hooked me 25 years ago. I saw my brain and at 37 it looked worse than my mom's brain who was 60 and that really irritated me but I played football in high school and so I developed this thing I call brain envy. I wanted a better brain which then lead me to like make time to sleep and eat right and play table tennis and do all of the things that I do. I know you don't have much time. We are just so grateful and can you talk about Move for Minds and how people can learn about that?

Maria Shriver: Sure. Well they can go to and find out as much as they want. I want to thank you both, you came last year and it was really I think it's revolutionary in a way that we went to Equinox which is high performance living where people are already thinking about their bodies. I said can we get people to start talking and move for their minds, and they yes and that to me was really great because corporate America has been slow to embrace Alzheimer's as a cause. You know corporate America and I'm not trying to compete with breast cancer but you know every time I go to say something to somebody they're like well we already do something for breast cancer and I say that's great. I love that but a women in her early '60's is twice as likely to get Alzheimer's in her lifetime than she is to get breast cancer. So we've got to start talking about our minds and our brains. Even if it's scary. Even if your age is up. This is something that's going to wipe out Medicare, Medicaid and our country not to mention millions of families.

So Move for Minds is a hopeful event. It's in eight cities. People will come to the Equinox gyms where they'll hear from people like you, people who will bring us up to date on all the hopeful information that's out there regarding sleep, regarding care giving, regarding food, regarding cognition exercise, physical exercise, as I said nutrition and they'll all be in this one space. We'll also be having a specific workout. Moving your body is critical to saving your mind and I'm hopeful that people will become as obsessed with saving and exercising their brains as they are with their bodies. So I'm really grateful that Equinox that grown this relationship, wanted to put it in more places.

Next year we're going to Vancouver and London and all of the money raised online by the people who will go to the clubs goes directly to research. So we're always trying to get sponsors who will sponsor the event so we can you know have people like yourselves come there and do these panels and get people so they leave with information that they can use and implement you know in their daily lives today and wherever I go and talk about this and was maybe something you find as well people are stunned. Well educated people are like stunned at the information. They don't know any of it and that's both really exciting and really scary.

Tana Amen: Yeah I was actually there last year. I know Daniel was on your panel and I just have to say I highly recommend that people get involved. It was really not just educational, it was really fun. You had some amazing sponsors there.

Maria Shriver: Yeah. Thank you.

Tana Amen: It was a lot of fun. It was super interactive and and highly highly educational at the same time but in a really you know interesting way. It was not intimidating. It was just a fantastic event.

Maria Shriver: Yeah, i wanted to make it fun because people often think oh Alzheimer's it's scary, it's dreary, and I'm saying look it, it's fun to get this information. It's fun to learn. It's fun to be in community and people know now that you know, if they move their bodies that that's good for their bodies but surprisingly they don't know or they don't think about or it's just not kind of everyday thinking to think about how what you're doing to your body impacts your brain and I think everybody that goes to these events and we've done some kickoffs is really coming out of it going like wow I never knew that. I never thought about that and imagine what a healthier society we can have when people start knowing this information in their '30's and '40's and where we can also build the information across generations.

As I said, you know my kids went to it last year and they've become so much more aware and they've been really helpful to me about you know what I need, because I'll come back and I go oh I've got this pressed juice or I got this juice thing and my son will yeah but that one's full of sugar. You didn't read the label. I'm like oh I thought it was juice and he's like not all juices are the same mommy, not all protein bars are the same. That one you really like you like it because it's full of sugar and I'm like, oh really and so you know they've been really helpful to me and I think they saw their grandfather get Alzheimer's. They hear me talk about it. They see people come up to me all the time and I don't think they want that for me and I don't want it for me and so I'm trying to run out the clock but I'm getting to it later in a way because ...

Dr. Daniel Amen: Yeah but we're still really young, because I'm the same age as you are.

Maria Shriver: Yeah, okay.

Dr. Daniel Amen: What I like about Move for Minds it's empowering and you probably know this but most of our people don't is that if you have the gene that puts you at an increased risk for Alzheimer's Disease what the research is now telling us is exercise is better for you than anybody else.

Maria Shriver: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: That the right diet is better for you than anyone else. So the gene is not a death sentence.

Maria Shriver: Yes.

Dr. Daniel Amen: It's a wakeup call to do the right thing. Like I have heart disease in my family and I know it. My grandfather had his first heart attack and left me way too early and I loved him and so I'm not going to do those same things he did. He was a candy maker, because I want to be here for my grand babies.

Maria Shriver: Right.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So you have to find what's the right motivation and then put in the right strategies because you love yourself. I mean that's the reason to do it is I stay away from sugar because I actually see it as the enemy. It's going to rob me of what I want and you know I mean mindset is so important to be this brain warrior. You gotta know what you want, why you want it and then the other part is easy, then you don't feel deprived to, you feel like when you do the wrong thing well then you're really depriving yourself of what you truly want.

Maria Shriver: So [crosstalk 00:19:43] I thought what was interesting that you said is also the sugar that's in bread or crackers or chips. You know, that sort of stuff is also, I never think of those things as sugar. I think of sugar as candy, you know and also we weren't brought up that way right? So it's ...

Dr. Daniel Amen: Yeah, not at all.

Maria Shriver: So I'll be eating chips and my daughter goes you know mommy that's sugar you're eating. I go no I'm eating chips. She goes well that turns to sugar. I'm like oh my God what can I eat?

Tana Amen: She's awesome. She's awesome.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Like ten thousand things. You can eat ten thousand things.

Tana Amen: Yeah. You know what, I will bring some of the new cookbooks to your event because you, I've got 133 recipes in there, things that will not make you sick but I have our people, I always tell them our community the next time you look at a big bowl of rice or potatoes or bread just tell yourself I'm going to go eat a big bowl of sugar because that's exactly what you're doing and that's sort of shocking.

Maria Shriver: Sugar even if you're going to eat potatoes?

Tana Amen: Absolutely. Now sweet potatoes are a little bit different but yeah no white potatoes.

Maria Shriver: No white potatoes?

Tana Amen: Nope.

Maria Shriver: No pasta? Even if it's gluten free?

Tana Amen: Nope. In fact gluten free is the biggest scam on the planet because they use that label and they add a whole bunch of sugar in place of it or starch, tapioca starch, those types of things are even worse.

Maria Shriver: No bread?

Tana Amen: Nope.

Dr. Daniel Amen: You have to come see us.

Tana Amen: Yeah.

Dr. Daniel Amen: We'll get you to fall to love with food that tastes amazing that loves you back. So you know I always say I've been in bad relationships in the past, in love with people who didn't love me back and I'm not doing that with food. I am only going to love something that serves me that nourishes me that loves me back.

Tana Amen: Yeah, those foods are truly abusive. They're beating the heck out of you and you're just putting up with it.

Maria Shriver: Oh no. Gosh. We've gotta remember exercise, change the diet, figure out a better way to manifest your stress. That's a big thing I think for women. Women you know everything I've heard now is people who kind of don't dwell on stress don't lube don't you know worry, most women I know particularly women who are moms you know, worry is their middle name and then someone tells us not to worry which makes us worry more and then someone tells us to relax and then I get irritated. So I think there are a lot of things that you know ...

Dr. Daniel Amen: Did you know that women have 52% less serotonin than men and when serotonin goes low in your brain your brain starts to over fire and you worry, you hold onto negative things. If things don't go a certain way you can be upset and you're much more vulnerable to depression which doubles or triples the risk for Alzheimer's Disease. So women have twice the risk of depression as men and they're, and sugar increases serotonin in the brain. So it makes people feel good which is why you know there's always this fight about sugar but exercise increases serotonin and the spice, saffron. I love that spice because it's been shown to have antidepressant effects and it helps memory. So you know I know it's the world's most expensive spice but put it in everything.

Maria Shriver: Saffron? Okay, on my, it goes on my chicken, it goes in my salad. Ugh. Okay I'll try.

Tana Amen: So I'm going to bring you some fun cookbooks.

Maria Shriver: Okay. That's great.

Dr. Daniel Amen: You have been awesome.

Maria Shriver: Well thank you and thank you for all that you're doing. I'm glad to be in this space really with you and it's a space, I call this really the ultimate women's empowerment issue because I, it does impact families, you know financially spiritually emotionally physically and I've always said to women who go well you know it's really not my thing and I go well is losing your mind your thing? Using your mind to get to that seasuite that you always wanted and then you lose your mind, is that your thing? So I think that we can be empowered and we can raise our children differently. We can educate our workspaces differently. We can be different kinds of bosses. We can be different kinds of caregivers. This is going to impact every family in this country. This is a global medical crises and this is one that I really do believe if we all put our minds to it we can beat but we've got to have a collective movement here and we've got to get going.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Well we are so grateful for your effort and we are warriors with you.

Maria Shriver: Thank you.

Tana Amen: Looking so, so forward to seeing you at this year's event.

Maria Shriver: I'd love to tell ya'll, so I've just done a big coloring book called Color You Mind. You can preorder it at Amazon now and I'm really excited about it because it's informative, it's inspiring, it's really groundbreaking because when my dad had Alzheimer's there was very little that I could do with him other than walk in the beginning and this coloring book is really informative for care givers and it's also a shared activity that kids can do with grandparents or a loved one.

Tana Amen: Fantastic.

Maria Shriver: So I'm really hopeful that this will bring a lot of great information to caregivers and people who love those who have Alzheimer's and other dementias.

Dr. Daniel Amen: So the book is called Color You Mind?

Maria Shriver: Color Your Mind. Color Your Mind.

Tana Amen: Love that.

Maria Shriver: You can preorder it on Amazon. It's an adult coloring book. It's festive. It's bright. It's fun and it's a tool to bring you closer to someone that you care about.

Dr. Daniel Amen: Great.