One of the most iconic Formula 1 drivers of his time, Sir Jackie Stewart won World Championships with his sweetheart, Lady Helen by his side recording his track time. Now, Sir Jackie is racing the clock to find a cure for dementia to help Lady Helen; he spoke with Lorne Gillies.
“It’s a really cruel illness,” emphasises Sir Jackie Stewart as he discusses the impact of watching his wife, Lady Helen Stewart succumb to symptoms of frontotemporal dementia.
“It is a terrible thing to see someone fading away in front of you. I have been married 57 years to Helen; she was my timekeeper, my lap charter when I was a Grand Prix driver, she brought up two boys and we have nine grandchildren – it is a sad thing to see.”
Five years prior, Sir Jackie and Lady Helen attended an annual check-up where doctors found the initial signs of dementia. Although in the very early stages at that time, Lady Helen’s condition has advanced and she now requires around the clock attention.
Dementia is a painful disease for someone to live with, and it is a challenge for family members, too. This is why Sir Jackie is embarking on his most challenging race to date.
“Seeing the degradation of Helen’s quality of life is why I started Race Against Dementia,” he explains about his charity, which is working to raise funds to find prevention or treatment of dementia.
“There is no cure and for over 30 years people have been piling money into the race to try and find corrective medicine, and perhaps even more importantly, preventive medicine.
“This is the biggest challenge I have ever met in my life, but I think we’ve got to do it in a very business-like, thorough way and go to the best people.”
Methods in which Race Against Dementia are working on a cure go against the grain of any research conducted to date. Identifying new medical talent, financially funding PhD researchers to pursue higher risk ideas, to instilling a Formula 1 attitude to change that will spark finding a cure.
He continues passionately: “Nobody ever thought there would be a man on the moon – things can happen, but it happens, usually, through completely different groups of people.”
Upon discovering Lady Helen’s diagnosis, Sir Jackie admits one of the foremost struggles was learning that there has been a multitude of research conducted over the years to no avail.
Going back to the pits and where the couple thrived, it is hoped Formula 1 may have the answer.
“We are using motorsport, Formula 1, as an example because today they are the fastest problem solvers in any business in activity that I know, in the world,” emphasises Sir Jackie.
Formula 1 was the driving force behind the couple, which saw Lady Helen act as Sir Jackie’s stopwatch – recording his laps to the millisecond with precision.
Her sharp mind has now, unfortunately, started to deteriorate, but Race Against Dementia hopes a new wave of research can pave an optimistic path for those living with dementia and their families.
After all, as Sir Jackie explains, having a race every 10 days means the teams behind Formula 1 are continually adapting. If we can adapt a car in such a quick turnover, why can we not use this logic to find a cure?
“They will go to the Red Bull factory and the McLaren factory and stay for as long as they need to stay, to see how they go about their business compared to medical laboratories, because we have laboratories in Formula 1,” continues Sir Jackie.
And the change from Sir Jackie’s time driving to now is evident.
“There are faster ways of working that wouldn’t have even been imagined when I was a Grand Prix driver – it is remarkable,” he adds.
“And it is all very simple things, such as changing a wheel. In my day a pit stop was two minutes or more to get the four wheels changed, now they’re doing it in less than two seconds and it’s partially human and partially doing it a different way.
“We just need someone to break through, and it is the same as in the world of motorsport. Every now and again someone finds a new way of working with aerodynamics, or a new way of transmission.”
Travelling across the world to discover the latest talent in research, Race Against Dementia is putting a Formula 1 attitude into the fight for a cure for the 850,000 people in the UK living with a form of dementia, and the global issue of over 50 million people with the condition.
In the time it will take to complete a pit stop at the iconic Monaco Grand Prix, one more person will develop the condition.
The time to find a cure is now.
“I’ve been all over the world looking at hospitals to see how we can go about doing research differently. The brain is by far the most complicated part of the body, and my wife Helen is experiencing the most difficult form of dementia,” Sir Jackie says.
“Nothing has helped her as of yet. It has been very difficult, and a frustrating reality to witness. Someone you’ve lived with for most of your life, we have given so much to each other – it is not a nice thing at all.”
Getting behind the driving seat of research, it is with great hope that Sir Jackie Stewart achieves his goal of taking an ethos and sportsmanship which saw him stand on podiums as a World Champion into the laboratories working to find a cure for dementia.
Learn more about Race Against Dementia here.