Loss of Humor an Early Sign of Dementia

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerDecember 30, 2015

A recent study found that changes in a person’s sense of humor can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, emerging years before other symptoms occur. Loved ones and caregivers of people with dementia reported noting changes in the type of humor enjoyed by the person with Alzheimer’s and an increase in “dark” or inappropriate humor nine years before more common symptoms of dementia presented themselves. 

Learn more about this study, what it means for people with dementia and their caregivers, and what needs to be done to learn more about the effects of the disease on human behavior.

Detecting Changes in Humor: An Early Sign of Dementia

A study recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and conducted by researchers in London, found that participants with dementia experienced changes in sense of humor about nine years before other dementia symptoms occurred.

The study involved 48 people with Alzheimer’s or a related form of dementia and 21 people who were healthy. Dividing humor into three categories — slapstick, absurdist or satirical — researchers asked friends, relatives or caregivers who had known the participant for at least 15 years to answer a questionnaire evaluating how their sense of humor had changed. Researchers also asked if the subject had ever laughed at inappropriate things or things that other people did not think were funny.

The study revealed that participants with dementia were less likely to find satirical or absurdist humor funny, but were more likely to enjoy slapstick comedy and that these changes became evident 9 years before other symptoms. They also found that many of the participants with dementia found inappropriate things funny.

Caregivers and loved ones noted some of the more obvious changes they had seen, stating:

  • “Rarely laughs at jokes now except own, often inappropriately. Jokes taken literally, misses the point.”
  • “Used to be very witty but that has all gone; humour has to be more obvious, laughs if others laugh.”
  • “Has developed a dark and misplaced sense of humour; relishes other people’s mishaps or upset.”

Understanding the Changes of Dementia

Researchers admit that their findings may be subject to bias in that the study was smaller with a limited number of participants and relied on the memory and opinions of people over a 15 year period. They also acknowledge that more studies need to be done to understand changes in behavior as a potential marker for dementia.

Nevertheless, researchers hope that their findings can give caregivers and loved ones greater insight into the effects of dementia in social settings, ultimately enhancing the lives of caregivers and patients. They write:

“We hope that our findings will stimulate interest in humor as an engaging, ecologically relevant and informative index of social functioning in neurodegenerative disease.”

Have you noticed a change in sense of humor in your loved one with dementia? Did those changes become apparent before other, more common symptoms? Share your story with us in the comments below.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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