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For Natalie Morales, the fight against Alzheimer's is personal

When the West Coast anchor of "TODAY" learned her mother-in-law had Alzheimer's, she made it a mission to spread awareness of the genetic disease.
Natalie Morales, West Coast anchor of "TODAY," at a Know Your Value event in Philadelphia on Nov. 19.
Natalie Morales, West Coast anchor of "TODAY," at a Know Your Value event in Philadelphia on Nov. 19.Anthony Scutro

When NBC anchor Natalie Morales learned her mother-in-law was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she and her husband made it their mission to ward off the onset of the genetic disease. From exercising to eating right, they’re working on setting an example for their two sons.

“When my mother-in-law was diagnosed, my husband and I took that as our ... mission in life,’” Morales told millennial contributor Daniela Pierre-Bravo at a Know Your Value event in Philadelphia earlier this month.

“All of the things that people are doing to stay fit and healthy these days, we're doing, but times 10,” Morales said, “because we also realize, when you have somebody in the family has early onset, the genetic risk unfortunately increases. So yeah, my husband is very aware of that. And we do what we can to prepare right for the unthinkable.” Morales is an outspoken advocate for early diagnosis and prevention of the disease, especially in November, which is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. She told Pierre-Bravo that she was especially struck that her mother-in-law was diagnosed at 55, an age when her body was still young and healthy.

“I mean, that's me in not too many years,” Morales said. “It makes me think about like, as much as you can plan for your future, you're never thinking about ‘this could happen to me.’”

Morales pointed out that two out of three Americans with Alzheimer’s are women, and that women are also more likely to be the caretakers for people with Alzheimer’s than men. Research shows that women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than breast cancer.

In line with one of the themes from the Philadelphia Know Your Value event, Morales pointed out that health risks are one of the reasons why women need to be financially secure and plan for unforeseeable events. Physically and mentally, she wards off the risks associated with aging by exercising regularly, eating mostly plant-based foods and doing mental exercises to stay sharp.

“Your brain needs to be challenged in so many different ways, whether it's doing puzzles, crossword puzzles, learning new tasks, even just driving different ways,” Morales said. “If you're constantly changing your routine, and challenging yourself, studies show that those are ways to at least prevent perhaps early onset or push it off a little bit longer.”

According to The Alzheimer’s Association, women not only comprise the majority of Alzheimer’s patients, but they also take on a disproportionate share of the caretaking. More than 60 percent of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers are women, and more than a third of dementia caregivers are daughters.

“For caregivers, you must take care of yourself,” Morales said, “because the reality is the stress is more on the caregivers than it is that on the actual patient.” In her own family, her father-in-law acted as her mother-in-law’s primary caregiver, eventually seeking help from a nursing home that specializes in Alzheimer’s in his wife’s later years.

“My mother-in-law didn't know what was going on and was living a somewhat healthy existence even though her body and mind were deteriorating,” Morales said. “But my father-in-law started having a lot of medical issues and they say for caregivers, they're the ones who suffer the brunt of a long-term illness the most. They're the ones who deal with stress, cardiac arrest rates go up. Anything that can happen will happen most likely because your body is in a state of constant stress. So take care of yourself.”

As the West Coast anchor of "TODAY," the host of "Access Hollywood" and co-host of "Access Hollywood Live," and a former news anchor and co-host of the third-hour of "TODAY," Morales is a pro at taking care of herself amid challenging circumstances. With an intense schedule full of travel and with kids at home, she practices the work-life balance she preaches to women entering journalism. Her reporting has included some of the most important stories of the last two decades, from 9/11 to Columbine, and numerous presidential elections and Olympic Games.

“I have had a lot of women who've been great mentors to me [like] Katie Couric [and] Meredith Viera, a lot of women who kind of showed me the ropes when it came to not only being great at my job, but also still maintaining the work-life balance at home,” Morales said. “And I think that's also a big part of figuring out the full picture: finding people who are going to help support you and be part of your team.”

That teamwork is important in such a competitive field, and Morales said one thing women can do to know their value is compare notes on their salaries.

“It took me a while of like, you know, getting paid less than a couple of male anchors that were doing the same job as me in smaller markets,” Morales said, “and it took a while for me to find my voice.” She said she had a hard time learning to advocate for herself, having been raised to respect authority figures and do what she was told. She acknowledged that it can be harder for women of color.

“I'm a big believer in helping all of those who come behind me because, you know, as I get older, there are a million more behind me we're trying to do what we're doing,” Morales said. “Especially as one of very few Latinas very visible on a high-profile morning show, I think being able to be there and represent and let little girls look up at the screen and believe that if they can see it, they can truly be it, is such an important thing.”