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While some oft-cited labor statistics suggest that the average American worker will have as many as seven careers over his or her lifetime, many jobs researchers say that number is implausibly high. UCLA’s James I. Ausman, MD, PhD, however, has come close.

James I. Ausman, MD, PhDBy Kim Kowsky

In the past 50 years, Dr. Ausman has made his mark as a neurosurgeon, medical educator, business consultant, lecturer, online publisher and television producer. All of his endeavors, he says, are based on one guiding principle that he learned from his father, a physician, and his mother: “The patient comes first.”

“It is a fundamental principle in medicine,” Dr. Ausman says. “It’s all about helping people.”

At age 75, Dr. Ausman currently spends one week a month in the operating room. A specialist in complicated surgeries of the brain, he now focuses on spine surgery, vascular surgery and tumor surgery. The rest of his time is divided among a host of other enterprises, each of which is a career in itself. With a lecture schedule this year that includes Finland, Korea, Pakistan, Peru, Panama and Israel, Dr. Ausman serves as chief executive officer of Future Healthcare Strategies, a neuroscience and neurosurgery consulting company he founded. He also is editor-in-chief of Surgical Neurology International, a free online journal of neurosurgery and neuroscience that he began in 2010. The journal reaches some 20,000 readers each month in more than 200 countries, offering scientific papers, live video tutorials and other educational content. “It’s all about helping people,” Dr. Ausman says.

He and his wife of 53 years, Carolyn, also have a production company that currently is assembling its third season of a successful public-television series called The Leading Gen, which draws on his extensive research in geriatrics, cognitive psychology, physiology, aging and brain imaging to help baby boomers and older people achieve longer, healthier lives.

Dressed in his signature white jeans, white shirt, white coat and white cowboy boots — a pristine ensemble he wears daily to convey fastidiousness to his patients — Dr. Ausman cuts a striking figure of health and vitality. Each day, he rises at 4:30 am to read 10 politically diverse online newspapers, medical journals, books and other publications. He also spends an hour a day playing tennis and swimming.

Dr. Ausman earned his MD from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, a master’s in physiology from State University of New York, Buffalo, and a PhD in pharmacology from George Washington University. After completing his neurosurgery residency at the University of Minnesota, he worked at the National Institutes of Health for three years, where he developed the nation’s first pharmacological model for brain-tumor therapy. He also was on the board of directors of a biomedical company that he helped found, which sold a product he and his colleagues developed to measure brain-oxygen content.

Before he came to UCLA in 2004, he headed two departments of neurosurgery — Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and the University of Illinois in Chicago — growing both into top-ranked programs and cementing his reputation as a “turnaround specialist.”

Dr. Ausman’s strategy for creating The Leading Gen and the production company that launched it in 2007 speaks volumes about his intellectual curiosity and prowess, as well as his tendency to take on controversial topics. When he came to Los Angeles, he began treating a large number of formerly high-powered executives who saw their cognitive and language abilities decline after retirement — a condition he describes as both a syndrome and a disease precipitated by retirement. He felt particularly frustrated by the widely accepted view that people are born with brain cells that are destined to decrease throughout life. Research, he says, shows that the number of brain cells actually increases when properly stimulated. “If you exercise your body and brain throughout your life, you’re continuously making chemical products that will keep your brain functioning at a high level and make new brain cells and connections that last as long as you are active,” he says.

Drawing on Carolyn’s background in broadcast communications and their own research on aging, the Ausmans created a proposal for a television show for people age 50 and older that would focus on stories of “real people finding real solutions to life’s real challenges.” The TV program initially was turned down by several television producers who were wary of marketing to older viewers, so the Ausmans created their own production company and began writing, shooting and editing a series of interviews with people representative of the U.S. population. The show has been broadcast on 214 public-television stations nationwide.

Dr. Ausman takes his own research into aging to heart. He and Carolyn are currently working on a personal “strategic plan” to help guide what they will do in the next chapter of their lives. “We’re looking at new careers and new challenges. The 21st century is going to be a phenomenal period in human history. We want a plan so we can enjoy it,” he says, adding “It’s going to be all about helping people.”

Kim Kowsky is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

 





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