THE BLOG

It Will Take Young Minds To Cure Dementia

04/06/2017 22:38

My first experience of creating a community was in motor sports. There were great numbers of racing drivers being killed. When I was racing in Formula One, statistics showed that if you raced for five years there was a two out of three chance you were going to die. The fatality level was incredibly high; there was little or no driver protection, crowd protection or medical facilities.

Something had to change. We knew if we didn't alter the fatality rate, the insurance costs could kill off the sport. In 1968, we had a driver die every month for four consecutive months. Jim Clark died in April, Mike Spence died in May, Ludovico Scarfiotti died in June and Jo Schlesser died in July. Four consecutive months in a row.

On the fifth weekend, we were racing The Nürburgring, Germany. 14.7 miles in the fog and the rain. I won the race by a four-minute margin - the biggest ever for a Grand Prix - but the only question I wanted to ask once it was over was: 'Is everyone alright?'

In the end, the community that drove the necessary change was only a small group of us. However, after that, we went twelve and a half years thereafter without losing the life of a Grand Prix driver and another further twenty-one years without losing the life of a driver in F1 following that. It worked. As a small community we were able to spread our voice, and magnify a problem to the point where the opposing movement were suffocated.

These days, I'm faced with another problem. The biggest challenge I've ever faced. My wife has dementia. She was diagnosed with this terrible disease three years ago in the Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. We've been going to this particular clinic every year for thirty-three years, so I've come to know them very well. When we found out, I asked outright: 'What are you going to do about it?' The answer? They couldn't do anything. There's no cure. No preventive medication. Nothing.

When we received the diagnosis, Helen's illness was only in its infancy and hardly recognisable. That was three years ago. Today, Helen has difficulty walking. She has very poor short term memory; however her long term memory is still excellent. She gets on wonderfully well with our family and with our grandchildren, but her life now is entirely built around myself and our family and her nurses.

Billions have been spent over the last twenty-five years trying to fight this disease. But almost every professor I've spoken to is close to seventy years old, and I think that's a huge part of the problem.

That's when I realised; the challenge of dementia needs young people. They are the new community, the ones we need to pass the torch to. That's when I went to Brand Union, who came up with the campaign 'Race Against Dementia', my charitable initiative that is raising money to fund breakthroughs and innovative dementia research. I thought 'these people will be young, and understand the concept quickly', as is needed. That's how we do things in Formula One: with speed. The branding and the artwork for the Race Against Dementia were just right. And it's these details, this extra step that can change an entire organisation, an initiative!

It doesn't stop there. I'm going to find people from every corner of the world. I don't care what nationality, if they are a man or a woman; I want to find the young men and women fresh out of medical college with their Doctorates and PHDs who will have the best capability to help. And I need other charities in the same space to help me to do that, and get behind the cause to find the best talent.

The disease is certainly getting attention, but I think the subject is still compartmentalised in a lot of people's minds and displaced as another person's issue. But dementia is not just an 'old people problem', and we need to fight that stigma to drive the calibre of talent working to find a cure. My children, like countless others, might not be the ones experiencing the earthquake but they still suffer the aftershock. I need help changing this perception. More people need to understand the cause in order to inspire the people of the future who can help. This is imperative, if attitudes towards dementia are to remain progressive and for momentum in this space not to slow. We need to band together as organisations and build a community that remains focused on the true goal: finding a cure and preventive medicine. Dementia is part of all our lives and a problem shared is a problem halved.

Of course it is always good to have counsel with those who have been "through the mill", but more often than not in today's world, the young achievers are the ones who are breaking new ground and finding new ways of doing things! That is my dream, and it should be part of yours, too.

Sir Jackie Stewart is founder of Race Against Dementia, a charity that helps fund ground breaking global research into new treatments and preventions that will ultimately cure dementia.

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