What would I tell my younger self? I recently finished Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age by Dr. Sanjay Gupta and would emphatically tell my younger self to read this, and live it! I’m certain my youthful self would have promptly elevated this science-driven book to “must read” status. While there are many important lessons and recommendations in this book, my younger self was always looking for the ‘take home’ and would focus on Dr. Gupta’s five recommendations for keeping a sharp brain.
Move. “Exercise, both aerobic and nonaerobic (strength training), is not only good for the body; it’s even better for the brain,” writes Gupta. “The connection between physical fitness and brain fitness is clear, direct, and powerful.”
Early in my professional career, I prioritized practice-building and other activities over fitness. I suspect I was not alone in this. Research summarized by Dr. Gupta supports the fact that regular exercise does not just allow us to run a 5k or keep up with friends and family in a friendly sport activity. More importantly, it will keep our minds sharp which is essential for staying on top of our mental game in our careers. Dr. Gupta recommends at least 20 minutes of physical exercise at least three times a week. Obviously, more is better.
I have always been impressed by many endodontic leaders who make ‘move’ part of their lifestyle, including Drs. Rick Walton, Ken Hargreaves, Marc Balson, Martin Trope and Ashraf Fouad (to name a few), who all have run marathons while maintaining incredibly productive and successful careers. And many of us know about Dr. Lou Rossman, who incorporated ‘Bootcamps’ into his lifestyle and AAE meeting in his presidential year. I suspect that these endodontists have been so productive because of their commitment to move, vs in spite of it. We can all benefit from their example.
Discover. Dr. Gupta writes “There’s power to maintaining a sense of purpose by continuing to learn, discover, and complete complex tasks”.
I can’t miss this opportunity to make a pitch for all endodontists to become Board certified. As with many things in life, the journey to board certification may be more significant than receiving the pin. It creates drive and habit of life-long learning, continually forcing us to ask not just what we should be doing in our practices but why we are doing it. Doing this should not only keep us sharp, but ultimately should improve our outcomes and the health of those we are so fortunate to serve.
Relax. “Relaxing is not solely a physical thing for the body,” writes Gupta. “Your brain needs to chill out, too.” Gupta recommends getting at least seven hours of sleep per night, “the bare minimum if you want to have normal, healthy functioning physiology from your brain on down.”
I wish I would have focused on sleep earlier in my career. It was all too easy to unwind at the end of the day by watching television. Today’s technology provides more diversions than ever to keep us up late (e.g., social media, YouTube). I would tell my younger self to get in the habit of “tuning out” by turning off devices before bedtime. If there is any doubt about the impact this can have on sleep, I recommend Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It made me a believer in getting at least seven hours of sleep a night. As the Caribou Coffee pitch goes “Life is short. Stay awake for it.” I would modify this for my younger self to say “Life is short. Get some sleep for it”. You won’t regret it.
Nourish. Eating for a healthy mind is key to maximizing performance and potentially delaying the onset of age-related mental decline. Gupta recommends the SHARP method: S- slash the sugar. H- hydrate smartly, A- add more omega-3s from natural sources, R- reduce portions, and P- plan meals ahead.
The food pyramid of my college years was built on three convenient and economical food groups: Ramen Noodles, macaroni and cheese, and Hamburger Helper. Occasionally, iceberg lettuce made an appearance as a pale green vegetable. Initially because of admonishment from my primary care physician, and then because I actually felt better, my nutrition has moved from macaroni and cheese to kale smoothies and more water, fruits and vegetables throughout the day. My hope is that I will eventually overcome the effect of the college era food groups folly and keep my brain sharp for years to come.
Connect. There has been longstanding research indicating that good relationships contribute to healthier and happier lives. Dr. Gupta writes in his book that relationships can also improve the brain’s plasticity and preserve its cognitive capacity. I was particularly struck by one of his recommendations when I thought about advice to my younger self – associate with people older and younger than you.
All endodontists early in their careers should have a mentor. I have been fortunate to learn from many mentors over the years, but I wish I had known earlier in my career the profound impact that listening to the wisdom and advice of others -whether they be younger, similar in age, or older- can have on one’s perspective, choices, and outcomes. This was certainly true for me as I was pursuing board certification. At first, I was hesitant to get potentially harsh criticism of my cases and my performance on mock oral examinations. After overcoming my initial hesitancy, I realized how impactful it was to have a mentor supporting and challenging me along the way. I encourage everyone pursuing board certification to find one or more mentors. The College of Diplomates is a great resource for finding mentors and mock oral examiners.
Of course, beyond mentors, I would encourage my younger self to look for opportunities to “connect” via long-lasting bonds with colleagues, educators and patients that have bettered your life. As I look back on my early career, I‘ve realized the value and joy that these connections have brought to my life.
My last piece of advice also relates to connection, and that is to start “paying it forward” as early as possible. There are so many ways to do this. Find a way to mentor others through the College of Diplomates, pat-time or full-time education, or just by reaching out to a new endodontist in your community. Connect with others and expand your impact by serving on an AAE committee or in a local, regional, or national leadership role. Donate to our amazing Foundation for Endodontics and support research, education, and outreach in our communities. This last one is good for the brain – it advances our knowledge and capacity to impact the lives of others – but also for the soul.
As we all continually look for the latest advancement, the new and improved, and the next technology for everything, my advice to my younger self is follow Dr. Gupta’s advice and focus on the things (Move, Discover, Relax, Nourish, Connect) that will keep us sharp in the years to come, then use what we have gained to improve the lives of others. I know your brain will benefit, and so will those around you.