Laugh out loud: could laughter really improve memory and health?

New research in California has revealed that older people are far more likely to remember something if they have been laughing. Given that many elderly people suffer from age-associated memory deficiencies, this jovial news is very welcome.

The reason memory is enhanced after laughter is simple. Laughter reduces stress levels, which lowers cortisone, our stress hormone. Stress has a negative effect on memory, so by de-stressing we allow our brains to work at higher levels of efficiency. Severe stress can result in chronic cortisol release, which can damage the hippocampus neurons, impairing our memory and ability to learn.

At Loma Linda University in California, a randomised, controlled trial consisting of 20 healthy adults (11 males and nine females) were put into two groups. One group was asked to watch a funny video for 20 minutes (the humour group). In the next room, another group was asked to sit quietly and watch a not-so-funny flick (the control group).

After the viewing time, both groups were given a memory test and tested for the stress hormone cortisol via a saliva sample. Those who had been watching the funny video recorded better memory recall than those watching the serious film. In addition, and in keeping with the scientists’ theory, cortisol levels of individuals who had been laughing were also much lower than their more sombre fellow participants.

Learning ability improved by 38.5% and 24% respectively in the humour and control groups, delayed recall improved by 43.6% and 20.3% in the humour and control groups – a significant increase for the laughter crowd.

The study author, Gurinder Singh Bains, stated that individuals who are less stressed tend to have better memories. The great news – and possibly no surprise to anyone – is that laughter is a great form of stress release. Laughter also increases endorphin levels in the body, which sends dopamine to the brain, providing a strong feeling of happiness and reward. As the brainwave activities change, memory is improved.

The study concluded that humour has a definite clinical benefit and even rehabilitative implications for the elderly. Humour could be implemented in programs that support “whole person wellness” for the elderly. Issues around learning ability and delayed recall are essential to this demographic for a better quality of life in every aspect – physically, mentally, spiritually, as well as socially and economically.

Added benefits of a good giggle

Beyond this study, other benefits from laughter have also been noted:

  • the effects of senile dementia and Alzheimer’s have been shown to improve;
  • improved general health – due to oxygenation of the cells through laughter;
  • laughter eases chronic pain, migraines and headaches and even asthma attacks have been found to be less frequent;
  • relief from anxiety and depression – creating a more positive frame of mind.

Relevant studies on laughter and humour

Happy senior couple - Sage Institute of Aged CareHumour and survival rates
Research on the effects of humour on renal disease shows that those suffering from the disease increase their survival rate by 31% if they have a strong sense of humour.

Norwegian University of Science and Technology

This extremely large study included a massive 54,000 Norwegians over a seven-year period, with promising results, for example:

  • adults live longer if they have a sense of humour;
  • a great sense of humour can decrease the chance of death in cancer patients;
  • those with severe disease and a good sense of humour could increase their survival rate by 35%.

University of Kentucky
Positive emotions correlated to a massive 10-year increase in lifespan – more than the difference between smokers and non-smokers.

Happy people and resistance to illness

This trial involved positive and negative thinkers to the cold or flu virus, with the following outcomes:

  • positive thinkers were less likely to become infected with a cold or flu virus;
  • positive thinkers that were infected had less developed symptoms;
  • only 28% of positive thinkers developed flu symptoms while 41% of negative thinkers developed them.

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Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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