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The Benefits of Laughter in Dementia

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Updated September 14, 2013

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

As we look for additional ways to treat and respond to the symptoms of dementia through traditional medicine, we also need to consider how complementary and alternative approaches to diseases may be of benefit.

One of these areas is that of laughter. Laughter has long been touted as good for you, relieving stress and improving your mood. But does laughter benefit someone who has dementia?

Laughter in Dementia

In the early stages of dementia, laughter at jokes and in social settings remains. As dementia progresses, the cognitive ability to understand a joke diminishes, as does the ability to recognize social humor.

In the middle and later stages of dementia, the ability to laugh typically stays intact until the very end stage and is usually in response to pleasant stimuli or achievement of self-set goals, as opposed to humor.

Benefits of Laughter on Behaviors

In my clinical experience with people who have dementia, laughter often distracts from unpleasant experiences and appears to reduce challenging behaviors. But is there any research to back this up?

A study published in 2011 found that people with dementia who were exposed to laughter therapy experienced a 20% reduction in challenging behaviors such as wandering, comabtiveness, screaming and repetitive behaviors. The study notes that this is a similar benefit as experienced with the use of antipsychotic medications. Laughter, however, has no side effects or medication interactions.

Other Benefits of Laughter

Are there other benefits of laughter for people who are living with dementia? The research reviewed didn't specifically isolate the benefits of laughter to those with dementia, other than in the case of reducing challenging behaviors. Anecdotal evidence, however, would indicate that it's likely there are, especially in the early stages of Alzheimer's and other dementias.

Laughter has been shown to help people in the following ways:

  • Cope with Illness More Effectively

    Multiple studies have demonstrated that laughter improves the ability to cope with health challenges.

  • Increase Pain Tolerance

    Laughter also has been shown to help people tolerate pain and discomfort. A research study published in 2011 found that when people laughed in a group setting, they had a higher threshold for pain following the laughter.

  • Boost the Immune System?

    A study conducted at the Indiana State University Sycamore Nursing Center found that immune responses increased after watching a humorous video with others. However, other researchers have not found a correlation between laughter and the immune system.

  • Counteract Stress

    Laughter also appears to counteract stress. About.com's stress expert Elizabeth Scott outlines several ways that laughter reduces stress, of which there is plenty in the midst of dementia.

Sources:

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/

Proceedings of the Royal Society. September 14, 2011. Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/09/12/rspb.2011.1373.abstract

University of New South Wales. September 21, 2011. Laughter life. http://newsroom.unsw.edu.au/news/health/laughter-lift

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