After watching two generations of her family receive dementia diagnoses, Jennifer Chastre decided to take action to reduce her own risk of the same future.
In 2015, Jen began the annual fundraiser ‘My May Challange', to improve her own brain health, inspire others to do the same, and raise much needed funds for the Hazel Hawke Alzheimer’s Research and Care Fund.
‘My May Challenge' is a 31 day challenge where Jen, along with other participants from around the world take the pledge to run, walk, ride, surf or swim five kilometres a day throughout the month of May.
Evidence suggests that about half the cases of dementia worldwide are potentially caused by health and lifestyle factors that can be controlled. If even one quarter of inactive people around the world became active, this alone could potentially prevent nearly 1 million cases of Alzheimer’s worldwide.
“We focus so much attention on the physical side of health and beauty, but so often lose sight of the importance of other health factors like mental, spiritual, hormonal, and adrenal - all of which are nurtured and strengthened when the brain is prioritised,” Jen said.
“Exercise is just one facet of brain health but if you can set up good consistent habits through exercise I find that it carries through to other facets of life as well. A good functioning brain means a good functioning body and vice versa. It's a snowballing effect of goodness.”
“The challenge is just as much about ‘mindset’ as it is about the physical challenge of running or walking 5km a day. I find that the majority of people don’t participate because they think that they can’t do it. But really, how hard is it to set aside an hour a day to get out in nature and enjoy a walk along the beach, along a bush track, a suburban street or footpath?”
Jen’s mother was diagnosed with early onset dementia 12 years ago and Jen, her father and her older brother and sister took on roles as carers. Jen became part of the “sandwich generation” – people who care for an ageing parent at the same time as young children of their own.
“I had just started a family and being the youngest of my siblings, my mum was thrilled that I was happy and providing her with more grandchildren. She loved to bath the kids when I visited, but on one occasion I was shocked to hear the kids screaming in the bath because mum had made the bath water too hot. At that point I realised I could no longer leave the kids in her usually capable hands. My kids have grown up with a nanna with dementia and I still feel sad that they never had her ‘there’ to spoil them and watch them grow up,” she said.
Jen’s mother has resided in a residential aged care home for six years now. It is the same aged care home that Jen’s grandfather resided in when he lived with dementia.
“The hardest thing about this disease has been the polarising toll it's taken on my family. It's been such a long drawn out ‘goodbye’. Everyone deals with it in different ways, but I’m hoping that what I’m doing is providing some kind of voice to those who can no longer speak for themselves.”
“My dad visits my mother every day unless he has an appointment, and I still visit once a week to give him a day off. My dad is amazing! It’s such an awesome love story but he has put his life on hold to be there for my mum every day. He’s quite active himself so he also takes part in the challenge each year.”
Jen believes that even those without a link to dementia can gain something from partaking in ‘My May Challenge’ challenge and she is passionate about physical activity as a way of reducing the risk of developing dementia and other chronic diseases.
“This is my third year running the ‘May Challenge' and each year it keeps getting bigger and gaining more momentum,” she said.
“We need to know that a cure is on the horizon. We need hope that one day we can live happily and healthily to a ripe old age without having our retirement marred by this disease. We also need to continually understand the causes so that people like me can strive to do what it takes to reduce dementia’s capacity to take over our brains.
“I am not generally a fearful person, but I’ve come to realise that fear is actually a positive motivator and the driving force behind my passion for brain health. I’ve seen first-hand what an ‘unhealthy’ brain does to your mind, body and spirit. There’s so much to be gained from growing older and I don’t want to miss a second of it.”