What Are You Laughing At?

Writing about Alzheimer’s isn’t often fun. Even good news, which is pleasant to bring to you, isn’t necessarily fun.

Today, however, I got lucky. I found out about an article in the BMJ Open online journal published in January by a group of Australian scientists. I got to read about “The SMILE Study”, which included “LaughterBosses” and “ElderClowns”. I kid you not.

The SMILE study (aka The Sydney Multisite Intervention of LaughterBosses and ElderClowns) was, by one measure, a failure. They wanted to find out if humor could alleviate depression in dementia patients. This they did not find.

More on that later, because what they did find is just as good. Humor does reduce patients’ agitation and anxiety. They found that their humor intervention could reduce the occurence of “two agitated behaviours” from daily to once a week.

From daily to once a week. Those readers among you who’ve spent time with a loved one with Alzheimer’s can tell you what a big deal this is. It’s big! For one thing, the results are just as good as what is achieved with Risperidone, a common anti-psychotic, but without the side effects! My Mom was taking that when she was at home – though thankfully at hasn’t been necessary since she moved to her care center. For another, let’s face it, it doesn’t just reduce agitation and anxiety, it makes people laugh and smile. Can Risperidone do that?

This is good news for everyone, but especially for people who are caring for someone with dementia. Make them laugh! Can it get more win-win than that?

To return to the question of depression, it wasn’t a complete failure. Here’s what the researchers write:

Depression, other forms of behavioural disturbances and self-rated quality-of-life all improved more in residents who experienced higher doses of engagement as a result of humour therapy, suggesting that humour therapy does change these outcomes, even though there was not a statistical advantage of intervention over control groups.

The conclusion is not, then, that humor cannot treat depression in dementia patients, but only that this study couldn’t prove that it can. Further study is most definitely warranted by these results.

But to get back to my original point, this was also fun. I mean, where else could read a sentence like “LaughterBosses were not tested for competency in delivering humour”? And reading “some suggest that the label ‘ElderClown’ might not be appropriate in describing the work of the professional performers” immediately called to mind an over-sensitive performer scoffing at term. “Sir, I am an actor!

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