Use Humor to Treat Agitation in Dementia, Not Drugs
You’ve probably heard that laughter is the best medicine, and when it comes to managing agitation in dementia patients, humor works just as well as commonly used antipsychotic drugs, according to a new study from the University of New South Wales. A bonus of using humor rather than drugs is that laughter doesn’t cause any side effects—unless you count the laugh lines it leaves on your face.
Humor therapy provides impressive results
Dementia affects about 24 million people around the world, and the number is expected to rise to about 84 million by 2040. Agitation is a symptom that affects 70 to 80 percent of people who suffer with dementia, and it presents a problem for patients and caregivers alike.
Although a typical way to manage agitation is to administer antipsychotic drugs, these medications are associated with a variety of serious side effects. Thus a non-pharmaceutical way to treat these patients is highly desirable.
At the University of New South Wales, Dr. Lee-Fay Low, a research fellow in the School of Psychiatry, and her team studied the use of humor therapy in dementia patients in residential aged care facilities in Australia. It is the first major study of how humor effects agitation, mood, behavior, and social interactions in patients who have dementia.
A total of 36 residential aged care facilities in Australia were involved in the study, each of which had a staff member who was trained to be a “LaughterBoss,” who collaborated with a humor practitioner to interact with the residents.
The study, appropriately named SMILE, involves training of humor practitioners and people who care for the aged so they can help provide playful relationships with residents. The SMILE study reported a 20 percent reduction in agitation when humor therapy was used with dementia patients, which is comparable to the results seen with antipsychotic medications.
During a 12-week program using humor therapy with dementia patients, agitation decreased not only during the treatment period, but remained low up to 26 weeks after humor therapy ended. Both positive behavior and happiness increased during the 12 weeks when the humor practitioners visited the patients, but declined after the visits ended.
Humor in medicine goes back to the time of Hippocrates. In more recent times, some people are familiar with Dr. Patch Adams, the doctor famous for wearing a red clown nose while he worked in hospitals about 40 years ago. Today there are also Clown Doctor programs throughout the world, from Australia to the United States, bringing humor to the young and old.
Use of antipsychotics is associated with weight gain, type II diabetes, myocarditis, tremors, dizziness, high cholesterol, blurry vision, stroke, and death. According to Dr. Low, the results of their study show “humour therapy should be considered before medication for agitation, particularly taking into account its side effects.”
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