Formula One legend in race to find dementia cure

Sir Jackie Stewart, who set up his global charity Race Against Dementia to fund dementia research earlier this year, has pledged £1 million (S$1.8 million) to the charity. The 77-year-old, whose wife Helen was diagnosed with the illness in 2014, is on a mission to find a cure for dementia in his lifetime. He says: “My hope is that somewhere in the world... we will find somebody who is going to take the knowledge out there and find the solution.”
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Sir Jackie Stewart settles into a couch in his suite at the Ritz-Carlton, with a blue badge - in the shape of a broken D - pinned to his pink polo tee.

It is the logo for a cause which has taken pole position in the life of this Formula One legend: to find a cure for dementia.

The 77-year-old set up his global charity Race Against Dementia to fund dementia research earlier this year after Lady Helen, his beloved wife of 54 years, was diagnosed with the illness in 2014. The couple discovered this during their annual check-up at the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

"It is the worst shock of my life. It changes your life completely as a family unit," he says, pursing his lips.

More than 45 million people today have dementia, which affects, among other things, memory, reasoning and mobility. According to the World Health Organisation, the number is expected to climb to more than 65 million in 2030 and 115 million in 2050.

Seeing the gradual deterioration of the love of his life has been particularly heartbreaking for Sir Jackie, who has been with her since he was 17.

"When you see her now and when you think back to the time when I was in Formula One...," he says, as his voice trails off.

A three-time world champion during his Formula One career from 1965 to 1973, the man nicknamed The Flying Scot describes Lady Helen as the original pit lane girl.

"She did all the timekeeping. She could take, with one split second stopwatch, the whole field, 26 cars, every single lap," he says proudly.

"She could do my times every lap, and also the lap chart from the first to 26. That took a laser mind. It was information for the team because the signals I would get from them would be based on Helen's information. So she was a big part of my motor racing career."

But that sharpness is gone; in fact, the 75-year-old's short-term memory seems to have been short-circuited. "I'd tell her where I was going and she would ask me the same question four times," he says.

Her mobility has suffered - she finds it hard to manage stairs - and there have also been personality changes. Once passive and non-violent, she now has a tendency to tell people what she thought of them; she would also poke or knock the hands of people she gets upset with.

"Those are things she would never do," he says.

"She would use a word I have never heard her use in her whole life: 'I don't give a f***,'" he adds. "Now, I have heard that word a few times but never out of Helen's mouth."

Lady Helen knows of her diagnosis and it frustrates her greatly.

"She is still somewhat in denial; she really doesn't want to know."

Sir Jackie - who went on to become a successful commentator and racing consultant after his driving career - admits that he is lucky he has made enough money to afford round-the-clock carers and the best treatments for his wife.

"I've built an elevator inside the house - only a privileged few can do that," he says. "But we've friends who've had to sell homes to put their loved ones into a home. That's a scandal. If they don't have the money, the quality and access to quality care may be different."

Research, he says, has shown that medical care for elderly folk with dementia in the last five years of their lives costs more than medical care for those with cancer and heart disease.

Indeed, a 2015 report by researchers from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and other medical institutions revealed that dementia costs, on average, more than US$287,000 (S$392,000) over those five years. The figure was US$175,000 for heart disease and US$173,000 for cancer.

"There are 40,000 people with dementia in Singapore and caring for them costs your Government $1.4 billion every year," he says, obviously having done his research.

There is no time to waste, he adds. While he has accepted that he may not be able to save his wife, he hopes he will be able to help find a cure for dementia in his lifetime.

To get the ball rolling, he has pledged £1 million (S$1.8 million) to Race Against Dementia.

He has also assembled a team of famous trustees, including Ford Motors Edsel Ford II director and WPP head honcho Martin Sorrell as well as philanthropist Vivien Duffield.

"My hope is that somewhere in the world - I don't care if it's Russia or Sri Lanka, Europe or Asia - we will find somebody who is going to take the knowledge out there and find the solution. When you find it, you must have the money to invest in it. I need the money and I'm going around the world to do this."

He is hoping that the cutting-edge research and adoption of new technology in Formula One can be duplicated in dementia research.

"There is a Grand Prix in Singapore this weekend, and one in Monza in Italy 10 days ago. The changes they are going to have in these cars between Monza and here - they were designed, manufactured and created for the cars in 10 days.

"I"ll bet you anything that on Friday, there will be a plane leaving London with two or three components in someone's hand luggage. That man or woman is going to pass it to the people at the airport and go back on the same flight."

In short, he is hoping to find the Adrian Newey of medical research. He says of Newey: "He's the chief technical officer of Red Bull. Before that, he was with Williams and McLaren. He has won 10 world championships for the Constructors' Championship because he's a genius."

Newey, he says, is good at thinking out of the box because he is dyslexic. Just like Sir Jackie himself, who was diagnosed only at 42 when he, on the recommendation of a teacher, sent one of his sons for a dyslexia diagnosis test.

"My wife didn't know I couldn't read or write properly... I don't know the alphabet or the national anthem. I've stood next to the Queen many times, but when the national anthem came on, I just couldn't do it.

"That's why I don't do e-mails and I don't have an iPhone," he quips, adding that he has a personal assistant to take care of his correspondence for him.

Growing up in Milton, a village in Glasgow, he was written off as stupid in school. "I failed every exam. One teacher asked me to read a passage from a book but I couldn't. I couldn't find the words, it was a jungle. She called me stupid, dumb and thick in front of 54 other pupils. And that went from the classroom to the playground. I developed a complex," says the racing champion who left school at 15 to work in his father's garage.

What saved him, he says, was shooting. His grandfather was a gamekeeper and his father was a good shooter. When Sir Jackie was 14, he took part in a clay shooting competition and won.

"It was New Year's Day and everyone was pissed," he says with a grin.

He went on to shoot for the Scottish team, coming in third when competing for a place in the British trap shooting team for the 1960 Olympics. He continued shooting until he was 23, when he became a driver.

Serendipity played a role in his driving career too.

"There was a rich young man in Glasgow who had a lot of beautiful cars but he was not allowed to drive because he was the only son and heir of a successful businessman.

"He used to send all his fancy cars to our garage. I was then a mechanic and was helping to prepare these cars for other people to drive."

He took up the offer when asked to take part in a race one day. He came in second. One thing led to another. He went from Formula Three to Formula Two to Formula One in 1965, and became a three-time world champion.

When he was 23, he married Helen McGregor, a bank teller he met when he was 17.

He met her after a blind date he was supposed to meet in a cafe took one look at him and decided she was not going out with him.

A mutual friend then asked him to join him and his girlfriend.

"Helen was with them. We started going out and that was that," says Sir Jackie, who has two sons and nine grandchildren.

They were a glamorous couple on the racing circuit in the 1960s and 1970s.

"In those days, motor racing was dangerous and sex was safe," he says, bursting into raucous laughter. "I fixed motoring safety."

He did.

In 1966, while racing in heavy rain at Spa-Francorchamps, he crashed into a telephone pole and had his leg pinned by his steering wheel. He was trapped for 25 minutes until he was rescued by two other drivers using spanners from a spectator's tool kit. There were no medical facilities or doctors at the track.

He became an outspoken advocate for racing safety, campaigning for, among other things, better emergency services, mandatory seat-belt usage and full face helmets for drivers. As president of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association for several years, he also lobbied track owners to modernise their tracks and organised several boycotts of races - like the Nuburgring in 1970 and Zandvoort in 1972 - until safety issues were fixed.

He is hellbent on doing his darndest for dementia.

"I'll try harder than anything else I've done in my life because it is only the biggest thing that has happened in my life."

This article was first published on September 18, 2016.
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