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Can Laughter Yoga Benefit People with Dementia?

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Updated July 30, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Ahhh yes, yoga. The world of stretching, breathing, reaching, sweating and bending into unnatural positions.

Wait a minute. "Laughter yoga"?

What Is Laughter Yoga?

Laughter yoga isn't quite the same as yoga, but it has some similarities. The goal of laughter yoga is as the name implies: laughter.

Laughter yoga is a technique pioneered in 1995 by Dr. Madan Kataria, an Indian physician from Mumbai. His first group had five people in it who met in a park and laughed together. They initially told jokes and stories to each other to stimulate laughter, but their material for jokes soon ran out. Dr. Kataria decided to experiment with the idea of laughter that was not based on any reason but was contagious. His wife, who was a yoga instructor, added the idea of including yogic breathing, and thus laughter yoga was born. According to Laughter Incorporated, there are now more than 7000 laughter clubs in 70 different countries.

The primary idea behind laughter yoga is that the body doesn't know the difference between real laughter and fake laughter, and can achieve benefits from both. Laughter for no reason is emphasized.

Laughter yoga combines laughter and intentional yogic breathing, known as pranayama. The instructor, in a setting that looks like an exercise class, may begin by leading the members in fake laughter. The class instructor might use eye contact and "childlike playfulness" to turn fake laughter into contagious real laughter.

The goal of laughter yoga is approximately 15-20 minutes of continuous laughter interspersed with occasional breaks where yogic pranayama breathing exercises are led.

Can Laughter Yoga Be Used in the Treatment of Dementia?

Laughter yoga is a great opportunity for people who have Alzheimer's disease or other kinds of dementia because people don't have to be able to comprehend a joke's punchline to laugh. Since the memory, word-finding ability and communication abilities of someone with dementia may be impaired, the idea of laughter for no reason fits well.

Does Scientific Research Support Laughter Yoga for People with Dementia?

There are several published studies that demonstrate that laughter (but not specifically laughter yoga) is beneficial for people with dementia. For example, one study concluded that the benefits of laughter for nursing home residents with dementia were comparable to the effectiveness of antipyschotic medications in the ability to reduce agitation, but without the potentially dangerous side effects.

Several anecdotal references online discuss the effectiveness of laughter yoga for people with dementia and cite improved moods and behaviors following the sessions. However, I was not able to locate scientifically conducted studies specifically on laughter yoga and its effectiveness with people who have dementia.

Laughter yoga is a method used to induce laughter, and laughter has been shown to benefit people with dementia. So, while acknowledging the lack of scientific research specific to laughter yoga is important, it does appear that this kind of yoga could be beneficial for people with dementia.

Of course, as with any method of treating dementia, you should talk with your physician prior to beginning any new program.

Sources

American School of Laughter Yoga. Laughter for Seniors: A Boon for the Elderly. Accessed July 25, 2013. http://www.laughteryogaamerica.com/services/laughter-yoga-seniors-boon-elderly-1588.php

American School of Laughter Yoga. History and evolution of laughter yoga. Accessed July 26, 2013.http://www.laughteryogaamerica.com/learn/history-laughter-yoga-1532.php

Bio Med Central Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Laughter and humor as complementary and alternative medicines for dementia. 2010; 10: 28. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2896339/

BMJ. The Sydney Multisite Intervention of Laughter Bosses and Elder Clowns (SMILE) study: cluster randomised trial of humour therapy in nursing homes. http://www.dementia.unsw.edu.au/images/dcrc/output-files/560-smile_main_outcomes_bmjopen-2012-002072.pdf

Laughter Incorporated. What is laughter yoga? Accessed July 26, 2013.http://laughterincorporated.com/laughter-yoga

Laughter Yoga Australia. What is laughter yoga? Accessed July 25, 2013. http://laughteryoga-australia.org/about-laughteryoga.html

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