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Humor Highly Effective in Treating Dementia

September 19th, 2011

This is one of those good news stories we don’t get to write about often enough. First, a little background:

Most people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia eventually develop agitation as asymptom of their disease. While “agitation” sounds benign, akin to being “cranky,” it is, in fact, a serious concern for dementia patients and the people who care for them. Agitation is defined as inappropriate verbal or motor activity. To an observer, it could look like uncontrolled verbal abuse or screaming, physical aggression, or self-harm.

Because agitation can be dangerous to dementia patients and the people around them, it is important to control this symptom. Typically, agitation is controlled by antipsychotic medication…and those medications can have some dangerous side effects.

So imagine how thrilling it is for physicians, nursing home workers, and family members to hear the results of new research showing that humor therapy is as effective as antipsychotic drugs in managing agitation in patients with dementia…all while avoiding serious drug side effects.

According to an article on News-Medical.net, both short-term and persistent agitation were decreased among people with dementia:

The SMILE study across 36 Australian residential aged care facilities involved the recruitment and training of a staff member to act as a “LaughterBoss” who worked with a humour practitioner with comedic and improvisation skills – not unlike “Clown Doctors” used in hospitals to aid recovery and lift mood in children.

The SMILE study found a 20 percent reduction in agitation using humour therapy, an improvement comparable to the common use of antipsychotic drugs….Agitation decreased not only during the 12 week humour therapy program, but remained lower at 26 week follow up.

This program was not just a once-a-week treatment. All members of the staff were trained to incorporate humor into their daily routines to maintain a cheery atmosphere.

According to an article in The Sydney Morning Herald:

“There’s evidence to show that people with dementia still experience humour and to the same amount of enjoyment as people without dementia but they find different things funny,” [lead researcher Dr. Lee-Fay Low] said.

“I think in some facilities they are very task focused and think, ‘we have to do baths, showers, food and cleaning’ and because they are so busy looking after the clinical and physical needs of the residents they sometimes forget to look after the emotional needs so the lightheartedness (in the study) is part of that.”

Now consider this:  One in four people over the age of 85 have dementia. If we have a choice of medicating our loved ones into semi-consciousness or treating them with humor, humor is the safer, less expensive, and overall more pleasant option. This study was conducted in Australia. Let’s hope nursing homes in the United States hear about this study soon.

To read the full article on News-Medical.net, click here:  Humour as Effective as Medication

To read the full article in The Sydney Morning Herald, click here: Dose of Laughter Good for Dementia