A new London-based study suggests that this change in sense of humor may manifest itself years before other Alzheimer’s symptoms do. And it may include changes that range from subtle to drastic, with the changes ranging from laughter at “frankly inappropriate” moments, preferring slapstick comedy or childish jokes, taking jokes literally or taking a while to get these jokes, if at all.
The researchers studied data on 48 patients with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive disorders such as frontotemporal lobar degenerations and semantic dementia, as well as 21 people not suffering from these diseases. The patients underwent neuropsychological exams to test their cognitive function, and were also given brain scans and other tests.
Family members, friends, or caregivers who had known the subjects well for 15 years or more were then asked to answer some questions about their sense of humor, and how it had changed over those 15 or more years. Comedy styles were grouped into farcical or slapstick comedy (e.g. Mr. Bean), satirical comedy, and absurdist comedy (e.g. Monty Python), and the friends, relatives, or caregivers were asked to rank how much the patient they know liked these comedy types, both 15 years ago and in the present. They were also asked in the questionnaire whether the patient had laughed at inappropriate moments, or at situations that wouldn’t normally be funny.
The study revealed that Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorder patients were much less likely than healthy patients to enjoy satirical or absurdist comedy, and much more likely to gravitate towards slapstick humor. Preference for satirical or absurdist humor was shown to decline at an average of nine years before the usual dementia symptoms would start to manifest. Further, it was found that a lot of the patients liked to laugh at the inappropriate, or tended to take jokes literally or not get them at all.
As these findings were based on a small sample of patients and were also based on caregivers’ recollections or control group members’ recollections from 15 years ago, the researchers believe more research may be needed to understand “humor behavior and its potential as a disease biomarker.”