Laugh Often to Live Wellby Jennifer Gibson, PharmD | May 10, 2014
You have heard it time and again – laughter is the best medicine. Humor and mirth offer a multitude of preventive and healing effects and a new study is offering more evidence that laughter has quantifiable benefits for the brain.
Researchers evaluated two groups of healthy, elderly adults. Half of the group watched a funny video for 20 minutes and the other half sat quietly and distraction-free for the same period. Both groups then completed the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test to evaluate short-term memory, learning ability, delayed recall, and visual recognition. The participants also provided saliva samples throughout the test period so that researchers could determine the levels of cortisol in their bodies.
The group who watched funny videos had better scores in learning ability and delayed recall; this group also had significantly lower levels of cortisol – a stress hormone that decreases memory – than the control group at all three time points tested.
Memory and learning are more difficult in advanced age, and improving these skills improves quality of life for older adults. Mounting research, like this new study, shows that humor might be appropriately viewed as a complementary therapy to overcome these age-related cognitive abilities. Formal laughter therapy programs and even laughter yoga – a group practice involving voluntary laughter – have emerged in recent years as prescribed therapies for patients with cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, and many other conditions. Interestingly, the benefits of laughter appear to be the same whether the laughter is spontaneous or self-induced and whether it occurs with or without humor.
In addition to improving mental abilities, humor reduces overall levels of stress, lowers blood pressure, and increase mood. Laughter also releases endorphins, providing a sense of pleasure and reward. Humor and laughter have also been associated with improved immune function by improving natural killer cell activity and improved eating habits by acting as a substitute for emotional eating.
To date, most studies of the benefits of laughter and humor have been conducted in older people; the studies have been small and the quality of the data has been questioned. But, in studies involving younger groups, the effects appear to be the same and lead to decreased stress and improved quality of life. And, while the evidence may need to be validated, it is fairly safe to say that laughter carries with it essentially no side effects, contraindications, or drug interactions. Laughter just might be the panacea for all ages. In a day when holistic medicine and whole-person well-being are important to many patients, it is not a joke to think that physicians will soon start instructing patients to eat a healthy diet, get plenty of physical activity, and laugh daily.
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