Racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart talks exclusively to Unforgettable about why we mustn’t give up hope of finding a cure for dementia.
Sir Jackie Stewart is a man with a mission. Aged 77, the three times F1 world champion has set himself a fine and noble goal; to find and fund a breakthrough cure for dementia.
Sir Jackie has no illusion about how difficult the challenge ahead may be – it’s one that has so far defeated scientists worldwide – but after a life lived in the high-risk world of Formula 1, being bold and daring seems to come naturally.
‘Dementia is one of the cruellest conditions any family can experience,’ he says. ‘Around 45 million people already have it and my darling wife Helen is one of them. We can’t let this crisis continue.’
Lady Helen, 75, was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (often known as Pick’s disease) two years ago but the couple, who’ve been married for 54 years, chose not to speak publicly about her condition until recently when Sir Jackie launched his charity Race Against Dementia to raise money for innovation in dementia research.
Never one to mince his words, Sir Jackie knows exactly what Race Against Dementia is looking for. ‘For twenty-five years we’ve spent billions of pounds on research but the traditional medical and pharmaceutical routes have failed. That’s not to insult the scientists involved, but it does seem to suggest that what we need now is someone who thinks in a different way.’
Of course all of this will take money. Lots of it. Sir Jackie has donated the first £1m himself and other wealthy friends have been equally generous, but finance and brilliant contacts are only part of the story. The search for a special person – or team of people – who are able to break new ground in dementia research is what Race Against Dementia is all about. ‘I don’t care whether we find the people we’re looking for in Europe, China, Sri Lanka or America. I would like to find a team of scientists who will break new ground. We need the best research talent from around the world.’
“What we need now is someone who thinks in a different way.”
Whilst Sir Jackie doesn’t pretend to be a scientist or dementia expert he does know a thing or two about Formula 1 and believes much can be gained from considering the attitudes and aspirations of some of the finest innovators in F1 history. ‘We have faster change in F1 than in any other industry in the world,’ he explains. ‘Three men were responsible for ground-breaking technology in F1; Adrian Newey, John Barnard and Gordon Murray. We need people of that ilk working on a breakthrough treatment for dementia, finding different ways of doing research, thinking out of the box.’
Sir Jackie has been ‘thinking outside the box’ all of his life. A severe dyslexic, he left school without any qualifications having been told he was ‘thick’ and would never amount to much. ‘I still can’t read or write correctly and I don’t do the internet,’ he admits, ‘But I found something that I was good at and learnt ways to adjust and get around the rest – that’s what all dyslexics have to do. Steve Jobs was dyslexic and so is Richard Branson, look what they have achieved.’
“I found something that I was good at and learnt ways to adjust and get around the rest.”
Sir Jackie knows that even with the world’s most innovative thinkers on board, the search for a dementia cure could still be a long time coming, but insists that shouldn’t stop us trying. ‘Prevention might be the ultimate goal for future generations but if we can find new ways to slow down the condition, to soften the reality of it, then that would surely offer hope for millions of people around the world, myself and Helen included.’
Meanwhile, he and Lady Helen are adjusting to their new reality. Sir Jackie has vowed not to let dementia defeat them or stop the wife he adores from living her life. ‘The degradation of dementia is not easy to take,’ he admits. ‘I think the shame and embarrassment people feel is similar to how people with dyslexia used to feel and sometimes still do feel – and there’s no reason for it. I decided to come out in the open about Helen’s diagnosis because we need more than money to find a cure. We need a change in attitude and an exceptional person with exceptional skills…and who knows, they may even be dyslexic.’
For more information about Sir Jackie Stewart’s charity, Race Against Dementia, click here.