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Aging Gracefully - Tips From One Dentist To Another

February 7, 2020

 

Recently, my oldest son turned 14.  If you have kids of that age, you know this means they are approaching one of the most feared milestones in a parents’ book—they are ready and raring to drive! It’s a bit scary to have your beloved child (and your beloved car) entangled in an exchange that you hope they both come out on the other side alive.  But when and how did it get so quickly to this point?  How can my baby be at an age where I turn over keys to a real vehicle?  It was hard enough watching him riding a bicycle just a few short years ago. I can’t believe that I’m at this point where he outweighs me, is taller, could pick me up and throw me over his shoulder, and openly defy me if he wanted to.  How did time pass so quickly?

 

Then I think about myself.  I’m 44, freakin’ years old.  What in the world? Some days I can’t believe that I am over 22!  I know that I’m getting old(er), but I really feel that the things that I do on a daily basis—the ways I fuel my body, move my body, and think—can legitimately help me age more gracefully.  All of us can use “pearls” about keeping ourselves more optimally healthy… not that aging is bad, but doing it properly is one of the hallmarks to success in my opinion.

 

So since I’ve “suddenly” become one of those old(er) dentists that is considered a mentor and someone with years of experience and experimentation to look back on and reference, I thought that I would provide some tips to how I’ve begun to fight the inevitable creep of time….

 

Dentistry can age a body like nothing else.  Sitting still in the same static poses for hours on end, craning our necks in I have struggled for years (in the past) with terrible back and neck pain.  Some days after an intensive day of restorative dentistry (usually replete with MOD fillings) my back would literally feel like there were knives sticking out of my neck or a wild fire running up and down my scapulas.  It was intense and made me doubt my ability to continue on as a dentist.  The pain was nearly unbearable.  I tried everything to get it to stop.  Massage, stretching, yoga, acupuncture, tens units, trigger point injections, chiropractic care, and different diets were all things I tried to achieve some relief.  

 

Second, the way that we fuel our bodies to do the hard work of dentistry is critical, not only to keep our energy up, but also to prevent chronic pain. I tried vegan diets, cleanses, Isagenix protein shakes, low sugar, no sugar, no dairy, no gluten, etc.  What finally worked for me was what I knew I should do all along—basically the “Mediterranean diet”, in other words, a diet chock full of lots of veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, low to no sugar, fish, and small amounts of dairy and meat. I first detoxed my kitchen and pantry of all the pre-packaged foods and convenience snacks that I would mindlessly reach for whenever the hunger pangs would strike.  I also got rid of coffee creamer, which was my vice,( I seriously could put down a HUGE container of this a week), and purchased ½ and ½ to use instead.  I looked at my situation as ‘what Can I eat’?  Rather than ‘what can I NOT eat’?  I tried to focus on having the food that I loved in a slightly different, more nutritious way.  For example, when I wanted coffee with creamer, I used coconut cream or heavy cream with cinnamon, instead of the International Delights Caramel Frappuccino with tons of added sugars, preservatives, and ingredients that I couldn’t pronounce.  When I wanted chips or something crunchy after work, I would usually reach for crackers or Cheez-Its, now I grab a handful of cashews or almonds, with a few chocolate chips—the fat actually helps me eat LESS.  I get satiated more quickly.  When I was snacking on crackers, I would almost get hungrier mid-nosh, and end up switching to other crackers, then cookies, and other sweets, until I realized that I had cruised through the whole pantry, leaving a wave of destruction (and empty bags) in my wake!  What is it about snacking that sets off a raging snack demon inside of me?  I don’t know, but when I subtly altered the choices I made and actually began to eat things with just a bit of fat and sustenance, I noticed that I calmed this out-of-control “locust” inside of me.  When I began to regularly eat this way, my body felt better, but unexpectedly, my taste buds changed, and the food that I ate began to taste better.  I never had experienced the subtle way that nuts were sweet, how plain cinnamon could make my tea and coffee have a subtle deliciousness, and how satisfying the crunch of a red bell pepper was.  I know,  I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s true!

"The way that we fuel our bodies to do the hard work of dentistry is critical, not only to keep our energy up, but also to prevent chronic pain."

For dentists, specifically, noise, especially noise from the dental drills and the high pitched whine over time can create hearing loss.  I am careful each day to wear a protective ear plug or a radio headset earpiece in my ear to combat the ambient noises that wreak havoc on your hearing.   This is what I consider to be an important preventative step in protecting my hearing, and a true threat to our vitality.

 

“Getting the gristle out” of my body (a.k.a. exercise) is one of my biggest lifesavers.  If I can do something, anything active during the day, my mood is better, I have a feeling that I’ve accomplished something with my day, and my body feels better, more agile and limber.  It doesn’t have to be a hard charging workout either.  Sometimes all it takes is some yoga, stretching, or taking a walk with my kids and dog.  Just moving your body as best as you can, each and every day to lubricate the joints, get your blood pumping, stretch any blocked/stiff areas, and/or burn some calories is tantamount to a successful and lengthy career as a dentist.  Let’s face it, we dentists have a lot of back and neck issues.  My own father practiced dentistry well into his 60’s and he never struggled with spine/back/neck pain.  He attributes this largely to his exercise routine, a mix of swimming, weight lifting, biking, walking, and variety.  He was one of the first people that I ever heard of doing yoga.  His example has served well for me in staying largely pain-free.  Whenever I am moving my body and treating myself to a mix of physical exercise on a consistent basis, I feel like I am at my best.

 

Another key to protecting your body and staying pain free is the choice of chairs that are in my office and operatories.  I currently have an exercise ball chair in my business office, which keeps me more upright and protects my posture when I’m at my desk working.  I figured I had nothing to lose when I saw that it was only $70 on Amazon. It is remarkably comfortable, and if my back is burning or super tight, I can lay out over the top of it and stretch my back.  Also, I use saddle chairs in some of my operatories.  A saddle style stool promotes a neutral pelvic position, which supports the spine’s 3 natural curves in a balanced posture. The stool places you in a ‘tripod’ position with the hips slightly flexed and abducted (spread apart), which is the most stable position for the hip joint. It is easier to gain close proximity to the patient when the thighs are steeply sloping downward, which minimizes excessive forward reaching, and when you are reaching less, your neck and head posture improves as well.

 

Making good choices physically is only half of it though. The other side of the coin is the choices that you make with your attitude and how your outlook is each day.  Dentistry is tough, and we sometimes deal with very high maintenance people in stressful situations, when they are hurting.  This puts our fragile psyches at a distinct disadvantage.  If you are anything like me, some days I dream of running away to Florida, opening a dive shop or restaurant on the beach, living in a cottage, and never looking at another tooth again.  Well, that isn’t reality, so I decided that I needed to change my mindset and be more positive and intentional every day--basically, setting my mind up for the best days that I could possibly have. 

"Dentistry is tough, and we sometimes deal with very high maintenance people in stressful situations, when they are hurting.  This puts our fragile psyches at a distinct disadvantage."

I’m an avid reader and podcast/webinar listener and one of my favorite bloggers/ authors/podcasters is Gretchen Rubin, author of the book “The Happiness Project”.  In this comprehensive study on joy, one of her key points is that most often, happiness doesn’t require big changes in self likes or dislikes. It’s usually found by reverting back to doing what you used to love as a kid or allowing yourself to read Dr. Seuss instead of the political section of the newspaper.  She has a focus for each month of the year, backed by science that helps you elevate your happiness level. 

 

Some of the tips that helped me most in my quest for a youthful mindset and happiness were:

  1. Looking for the good in the everyday things.

  2. Enjoying your work team, and since you are at your office nearly 8 hours/day and spending most of your time with these people really getting to know ,appreciate, and show kindness to them,

  3. Celebrating and actively talking about the best thing that happened in your life each day—this is the way my team starts each work day off in the morning huddle.

  4. NO gossip, resisting the urge to do so, and removing myself bodily from situations where the hens are a-clucking.

  5. Staying young in your mind, being childlike and playing instead of being so gosh-darn fuddy-duddy. For God’s sake, have some fun once in a while-- get on the floor with your kids, dance around like a maniac, sing loudly, etc-- it’ll make you smile like crazy!

  6. Smiling and talking with a smile on my face to patients AND team members.  Everyone interprets your message more positively when you look friendly, and this even comes through when you are talking on the phone!

  7. Continuing to learn, change, and evolve.  Just like the Dallas Cowboys always hold tryouts each year for players, no one is ever a shoe-in, not even the star quarterback. Never resting on my laurels or what happened last year, but eternally being a student of life.

  8. (One of my own and favorite) being more like my dear Grandma Irene (or in your situation the most joyful person you know), who always looks on the bright side, makes friends EVERYWHERE, and always is proclaiming (and really meaning) that a particular food/situation/event is “just the best ___ I ever had!”

 

Life is preciously short and incredibly fragile.  As I put my first-born behind the wheel of the car and let him drive us down the actual road, and as I head to work each day, there are decisions about the kind of person I want to be.  Will I encourage my son?  Or will I cling to the doorknob white-knuckled, screeching at him to make a quicker stop?  Will I be a cranky, negative, naysayer to my team, or a caring, uplifting, patient dentist?  I am in control.  And when I make the right choices, youth, vitality and positivity will always follow for me.

 

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