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Laughter Boosts Memory and Reduces Stress

We’ve all heard the adage that laughter is the best medicine. Now researchers at Loma Linda University in California found that laughter can improve memory by reducing the stress hormone cortisol. It is a well-known fact that stress can trigger illness and exacerbate certain medical conditions. Research has shown that stress can worsen memory in the elderly because excess cortisol can damage brain neurons.

Elderly woman laughing
Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

The Loma Linda researchers studied two groups of elderly participants, one that had diabetes and one that was healthy. Both groups watched a 20-minute funny video and then took a memory test that measured their visual recognition, learning ability and memory recall. A third group that did not watch the video was asked to do the memory test.

The investigators recorded the cortisol levels of all three groups before and after the experiments. They found that the groups that watched the funny videos showed a significant reduction in cortisol levels compared with the group that did not view the video. Those two groups also performed better on the memory tests. The group that had diabetes showed the greatest improvement in both the memory test scores and cortisol levels.

Dr. Lee Burk, co-author of the study, said the study indicates that a person’s memory performance is enhanced by reduced stress and the inclusion of humor in his or her life. In addition to reducing the stress hormones like cortisol, laughter helps the body to release endorphins and dopamine (feel good hormones), and to lower blood pressure and increase blood flow.

Ways to include humor in your life
In my forthcoming book, One Foot in Heaven: Healing Wisdom for Families Coping with Alzheimer’s Disease, psychotherapist and author Heather Hans writes about how humor can be used as a stress diffuser and health promoter.

Here are some ways to include humor in your life:

  • Pull Pranks--Whether elaborate or simple, pranks almost often bring a smile to everyone’s face. The most fun usually happens in the planning, and laughs can be gained for years after the prank is pulled. When planning elaborate pranks, make sure to consider safety and to ensure that no one’s feelings get hurt.
  • Playing with children any chance you get will add lightness and laughter to your day. Kids are so present and they find humor in the simplest things. You can make a funny face at them and they will crack up and make one back at you. When you get out of your head and really get down and play with them, you will find yourself in the awe and lightness of the world.
  • Movies, YouTube, and Comedians--Bringing humor into your life is easy as a click away. YouTube is an easy way to get a good laugh into your day. Look up cute or funny videos just a couple of minutes a day and you will find that your willpower will be regenerated to help you with difficult tasks as you find your way through the caretaking of your Alzheimer’s patient. You can find hundreds of clips of some of the best comedians, such as Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Bob Hope, Woody Allen, and Robin Williams, to name a few.
  • Laugh Buddies--One of the best ways to make sure you get a steady dose of humor into your diet is to have a laugh buddy. Even if it’s someone you chat with on the phone long-distance, find someone you laugh with regularly, and capitalize on it. We all have someone who consistently makes us laugh. For some it’s an old childhood friend, for others, a co-worker, and for some it’s a family member. Sometimes we take for granted the fact that we laugh with this person in general conversations about life and its idiosyncrasies. Do not take this precious gift for granted! When you can count on a good laugh during most of your conversations with a particular person, you are blessed.

Bains GS, Berk LS, Daher N, Lohman E, Schwab E, Petrofsky J, Deshpande P. The effect of humor on short-term memory in older adults: a new component for whole-person wellness. Adv Mind Body Med. 2014 Spring;28(2):16-24.

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