Maria Shriver: “Everywhere I’m Going, People Want To Talk About Women’s Health”

Updated: May 01, 2024

Longtime advocate, veteran journalist and bestselling author Maria Shriver celebrates May as Women's Health Month with groundbreaking collaborations with the Cleveland Clinic and the White House.  

She’s had one of the most front-and-center views of history among all Americans; in fact, it’s been said that as a teen, Maria Shriver realized what she wanted to be when she traveled with the press corps during her father’s presidential bid in 1972.

In March Shriver was present at the White House when President Biden signed the first-ever executive order “that builds upon the establishment of the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research,” which calls for $200 million to be allocated to this effort, according to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health.

President Biden Signs Memorandum Establishing First-Ever White House Initiative On Women's Health ResearchWin McNamee/getty images
President Biden Signs Memorandum Establishing First-Ever White House Initiative On Women’s Health Research on November 13, 2023.

For decades Shriver, 68, has been an audible advocate for women, as well as for Alzheimer’s research that leads to advanced understanding and treatment of this neurogenerative disease that 6 millions of Americans are diagnosed with, per 2023 NIH data. Shriver recalls being touched by the effects of Alzheimer’s firsthand after caring for her father, who was diagnosed with the disease in 2003.

Because growing research suggests that Alzheimer’s happens to women more than men—in fact, it’s reported that two-thirds of the brains that develop Alzheimer’s belong to women—Shriver says it has been her mission to drive recognition of Alzheimer’s as a women’s health issue and advance research to prevent the disease.

Last week The Healthy by Reader’s Digest spoke with Shriver about the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement at Cleveland Clinic, which Shriver herself founded as the world’s first organization devoted exclusively to women and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement first partnered with the Cleveland Clinic in 2020 to open the world’s first and only Alzheimer’s disease prevention center for women, the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention and Research Center at Cleveland Clinic.​ 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.

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The Healthy by Reader’s Digest: Maria, we saw your Instagram post when President Biden signed the executive order. It was such a “Yes! Yes! Yes!” moment for so many of us. Can you just talk about this moment that we’re in?

Maria Shriver: Well, it is a moment. We’re in a moment when it comes to women’s health, and I think the President and the First Lady have helped usher in that moment. Obviously, there’s been many people working for years in this space, whether it’s in the Alzheimer’s space or breast cancer space, or the heart space or the depression space. But this is a space where everybody’s united, where everybody has come together.

And I think when the President of the United States says, “Here’s a situation we need to rectify, and I’m going to start by issuing a Presidential initiative, by highlighting it in my State of the Union, by doing an executive order that gets everybody’s attention”—I can tell that this is a moment because wherever I go around the country, people are talking about it, women are talking about it, doctors are talking about it. Everybody feels like they’re included. It’s an incredible moment for women.

Katherine Schwarzenegger, Maria Shriver and Christina Schwarzenegger attend Cleobella x Katherine Schwarzenegger event at The Coast Lounge at Palisades Villages on November 04, 2023Michael Kovac/getty images
Shriver and daughters Katherine and Christina Schwarzenegger.

The Healthy: It is. The Cleveland Clinic is an organization many of our readers trust. What brought about that particular partnership?

Maria Shriver: I started the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement in 2010 and had been kind of going on my own. Several people had come up to me and said, “Would you ever partner with a hospital?” So I traveled around the country meeting different hospitals, looking at different hospitals about where, who, I wanted to “get married to.”

I had some friends, Larry and Camille Ruvo, who had started the Ruvo Brain Center with the Cleveland Clinic in Vegas. I went to them and said, “Would you start a women’s Alzheimer’s prevention center with me? Because I really feel like we need a prevention center—we need one focused on women.”

And they said, “Let’s do it.” So we did it for four years there, and it was kind of a pilot center that’s now grown. That was an introduction, a way to “date” the Cleveland Clinic, so to speak. They really believed in what I was doing, and I was interested in pushing that further into women’s health in a bigger way. So it just happened to work out for both of us. Like any good marriage, they were ready to commit, and I was ready to grow. So our partnership really has been several years in the making. It started strictly with Alzheimer’s and then grew into a broader comprehensive center for women.

The Healthy: Women’s health needs those voices! You’ve also been one of the nation’s proponents for greater awareness and efforts around Alzheimer’s disease. Remind us what first prompted your action.

Maria Shriver: Well, I got involved in Alzheimer’s in 2003, and my father was diagnosed. I wrote a children’s book. I went and did a big five-part series on HBO by [the executive producer for] Still Alice, which is having its 10th anniversary this year.

As I went through the country learning about Alzheimer’s, I started seeing that more and more women were being impacted. And yet all the researchers that I went to said no, that wasn’t correct. So I thought, I don’t think that they have this right.

So we [published] a Shriver Report, which reported for the first time to the nation that Alzheimer’s did in fact discriminate against women and that women were at the center of this disease. That changed the entire narrative around Alzheimer’s, and it changed the narrative for women’s health.

I started the Women’s Alzheimer’s movement out of that finding, because there were no nonprofits focused on funding research into women’s health. And the more I started looking into that, the more I realized, Wow, there’s no funding for women’s health— not just in the Alzheimer’s space, but generally. We’re way behind. And so kind of trying to solve the women in Alzheimer’s crisis led me into the women’s broader health crisis and the lack of funding. It really became a social justice cause for me at that point.

The Healthy: Are you encouraged by this time we’re in?

Maria Shriver: I’m encouraged by the growth of the women’s Alzheimer’s movement at the Cleveland Clinic. I’m encouraged by the brand new Women’s Comprehensive Center that they’ve just opened; I’m incredibly encouraged by the executive order, by the $12 billion mentioned in the State of the Union.

Everywhere I’m going, people want to talk about women’s health. They want to talk about this moment. They want to talk about ushering in a new era. They’re beginning to think about women’s health in a broader way. People used to think about it in terms of abortion or breast cancer. And I’m really adamant about explaining that—it’s a holistic conversation that I’m trying to have. That includes depression, that includes mental health, that includes osteoporosis, that includes endometriosis, that includes all of these things, autoimmune MS. Things that disproportionately impact women, that women’s health is far broader than reproductive health, and particularly focusing on women at midlife when so many of the chronic diseases take hold in women and men’s lives. So getting people engaged in their health care and their prevention at an early age seems to be the key.

The Healthy: And we’re learning more and more that so much past research, even on a vital like heart health, has been done with male research participants. Meanwhile just this week, a study found that female doctors may be helping their patients live longer! On Instagram, you recently had a really strong message to women. Can you repeat it for Reader’s Digest readers?

Maria Shriver: Well, I think that doctors are human beings, right? They have very limited time with you. So I think it’s really important that you go into the doctor’s appointment as your own advocate, knowing what you want out of that appointment, not abdicating your power, not allowing yourself to freeze or be powerless in the meeting about your body. You know your brain. You know what you feel, right? You have to stay true to that and voice it.

A doctor is not a mind reader. A doctor doesn’t know what’s going on with you unless you tell them. I’m a partner with my doctor. I have to tell him or her what I’m feeling, what I’m going through. I write it down. I come to the appointment with the questions I want answered, the things I’m experiencing. People have to understand that they need to advocate for themselves, and that advocating has to start early on. It doesn’t just come out in the doctor’s office. You have to advocate for yourself in life.

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This interview was edited for length and clarity.