Over the past two years, Jack Sheridan has seen his cardiovascular vital signs – total cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) – decrease dramatically. Yet, during this time, he hasn’t exercised more or changed his diet. His weight has remained the same as have his medications. So what’s his secret?
According to Michael Thase, MD, of Psychiatry, Sheridan’s physical improvements aren’t uncommon. Indeed, studies have shown that volunteering can lead to healthier hearts, improved brain functioning and lower blood pressure. “There’s good evidence that people who volunteer feel better, live longer and manage illness better,” he said. For example, a study at Johns Hopkins University showed that volunteering could improve brain functioning. And, according to another study, from Carnegie Mellon University, those over age 50 who volunteered 200 hours in the course of a year were less likely to develop hypertension.
Thase said there are many possible reasons for the correlation. For example, volunteering connects a person with others, helping to alleviate loneliness which studies show can lead to depression and a higher risk of heart disease. Volunteering can also reduce stress, which clearly can have a detrimental impact on both mental and physical health. And giving back releases endorphins (the “helper’s high”), the same ones that come with a good exercise workout… or winning the lottery!
But, the effort has to be altruistic. “If you’re doing it because your doctor tells you to and it’s drudgery, you’re not likely to see any impact,” Thase said. “Everyone should find meaning in a way the suits them.”
Sheridan started volunteering because he needed something to give more meaning to his life after retirement. A chemical engineer, he missed the people and projects that were part of his work life. “I was staying fairly active – playing a lot of golf – but I needed more,” Sheridan said. So he decided to volunteer at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. He splits his time – about 15 to 18 hours a week – between two locations: HUP’s Family Caregiver Center in the hospital and the Clyde F. Barker Penn Transplant House. “In the first week of volunteering, I knew this was what I was meant to do,” he said.
The Family Caregiver Center is many things to many people. For example, some family members use its computer, fax, and printer to help keep the everyday parts of their lives on track without leaving the hospital. Others see its “respite room” – with massage chair, peaceful images and soft music – as a temporary escape from the stress of having a loved one in the hospital, providing more privacy than a waiting room. And when they want to talk to someone, Sheridan is there for them, sometimes answering questions, but often just to listen. He’s formed relationships with family members who have come to the Center every day, for weeks or even months. “I try to bond with them, encourage them to tell their story, and help them get their mind off their struggles,” he said. “They count on you, sit next to you… You’re their rock.”
And while Sheridan helps “feed” the emotional needs of the people he meets and talks with, he also feeds their hunger cravings as well. “I bring in two dozen chocolate chip cookies every Friday,” he said. “And they don’t last long!”
Sheridan spends one afternoon a week at the Penn Transplant House, a facility that provides homelike accommodations for transplant patients and their families and is conveniently located near HUP. He talks with the guests – helping with directions, where to park, where to eat – but he’s also cooked three “soup to nuts” dinners for them.
Sheridan drives from where he lives (near Atlantic City) to do his volunteering – two hours roundtrip – but said, “I don’t mind the drive. In fact, I’m energized at the end of the day. I missed it when I was on vacation!” he added, laughing.
Sheridan’s doctor is as surprised as the patient himself at the dramatic drop in his cardiovascular numbers. Indeed, seeing his LDL fall from 93 to 73 and triglycerides drop from 116 to 96, Sheridan said, “He tells me, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing … but keep doing it!’”
But Sheridan insists he’s living the “same life” he always has … with one big difference. “This,” he said gesturing to the Caregiver Center around him “is the change. And now I have the data to prove it!”