Humor and Laughter: Health Benefits for Seniors
“I intend to live forever – so far, so good!” Stephen Wright
Laughing is universal; no matter how old you are, what language you speak or what your physical or mental abilities are, you can laugh. Even people who have been accused of having no sense of humor have been caught chuckling over a funny story, unleashing a host of physical, emotional and mental health benefits for both themselves and the people around them.
What Happens When You Laugh – “Middle age is when you still believe you’ll feel better in the morning.” Bob Hope
Laughing triggers a number of positive physiological responses: Relaxation of the entire body, relieving muscle tension and stress; Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, drop and minimize pain and inflammation throughout the body; The release of endorphins, natural feel-good substances that make you feel happy and content and have been proven to reduce the perception of physical pain; Reduction in blood pressure combined with a moderate increase in the heart rate and improved blood circulation and oxygen intake and The stimulation of the immune system thanks to the release of T-cells and salivary immunoglobulin A which is triggered by laughter.
Researchers at the College of William and Mary have found that “a wave of electricity sweeps through” the entire cerebral cortex (the whole brain) just before we laugh – this supports the theory that humor can actually help improve cognitive functioning by activating all parts of the brain simultaneously.
Health Benefits of Laughter – “You’re over the hill when your back goes out more than you do.”
While the science of humor is a relatively new discipline, research studies on the health benefits of laughter consistently demonstrate the connection between laughing and longevity. Researchers know that laughing lowers blood pressure while increasing blood flow and oxygen intake, all positive physiological effects that have been linked to a decreased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Because laughing triggers the release of the drug-like neurochemical endorphin, laughing simply makes people feel better all over. Laughing also can have an anesthetic-like effect on the body, suppressing physical pain and discomfort for up to two hours following a hearty chuckle.
Humor and Mental Wellness – “I have been to many places, but I’ve never been in Cahoots. Apparently, you can’t
go alone. You have to be in Cahoots with someone. I’ve also never been in Cognito. I hear no one recognizes you there.”
The ability to laugh is closely tied to having a positive outlook on life, an important protective factor against numerous mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. A study at Northwestern University revealed that patients with advanced COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) who were exposed to humorous videos enjoyed better mental health than study participants who viewed non-humorous videos, supporting the connection between mental wellness and humor.
Laughing also promotes emotional well-being, helping people maintain a positive outlook and stable mood throughout the day. Optimism has been linked to improved resiliency; the ability to cope with stressful situations in spite of numerous obstacles such as disease, financial stress or the loss of a loved one.
Humor and Aging – “The preacher came to call the other day. He said at my age I should be thinking of the hereafter.
I told him, “Oh, I do it all the time. No matter where I am – in the parlor, upstairs, in the kitchen, or down in the basement – I ask myself, “Now, what am I here after?”
Some of the most popular jokes involve getting older, thanks to their universal appeal (everyone ages, after all). While joking about age-related changes can help ease any anxiety over aging as well as help to normalize common experiences among seniors, researchers in Norway have found that people with a sense of humor can expect to live longer than their humorless counterparts.
The study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology examined the health records of 53,000 Norwegian seniors; it examined their overall health and length of survival in relation to their ability to see the humor in situations. Researchers discovered that after seven years, the study participants who had a “sense of humor” enjoyed a 20 percent lower mortality rate in comparison to those who had difficulty laughing at daily events.
Laughter: The Best Medicine For Chronic Conditions –“There’s a silver lining to being a cancer survivor. People said
to me, “Are you freaked out that you’re turning 50?” Hell, no. I’m thrilled to be turning 50.” Fran Drecsher, Comedian/Actor
While laughing has been shown to help prevent the onset of many physical and mental illnesses, humor is also emerging as one of the most powerful medicines for chronic and degenerative conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer.
A recent study by Dr. Jean-Paul Bell of Australia’s Arts Health Institute tracked the effects of live comedy on elderly nursing home patients with dementia/Alzheimer’s. Over a 12-week period Dr. Bell and a troupe of clowns and comedians visited 36 long-term care homes in Sydney, Australia, where they told jokes, played games and performed funny skits for the patients. For the duration of the program, staff in the nursing homes reported that participants were more positive and happier, while aggressive behaviors by the patients decreased for about 26 weeks after the program ended.