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Thursday 20th June 2019

Laughter better than drugs for dementia

3rd October 2011

Researchers in Australia say that making elderly dementia patients laugh could work better to decrease agitation than some of the medications they are currently prescribed.

Old Woman 400

A humour therapy programme carried out among dementia patients in New South Wales found that patients enrolled in the programme saw a 20% drop in agitation levels compared with a control group who received the standard care package.

The research team from the University of New South Wales said laughter was effective enough to be considered as an alternative to anti-psychotic drugs.

The study - codenamed SMILE - involved 400 residents of 26 nursing homes, and hired humour therapist Jean-Paul Bell to play games, sing songs and tell jokes to encourage half of the patients to laugh.

Bell formerly worked as a 'clown doctor' on children's wards, and uses a combination of bright clothing, songs, wisecracks and a ukulele to get his audience to chuckle regularly.

The Sydney-based study looked at the effect humour therapy could have on the mood, level of agitation, social engagement and behavioural disturbances in elderly care home residents with dementia.

The study also designated a laughter boss in each nursing home, whose job it was to make sure staff used humour during their daily care routines.

A control group of 200 residents received no humour.

Dementia patients, who suffer from cognitive decline as brain structures weaken and are damaged with age, suffer from memory loss and personality changes.

Most commonly found in people over 65, the condition is expected to affect twice as many people in 30 years' time as it does today, because of the ageing global population.

While dementia is a degenerative condition with no cure, there are some treatments which can help improve the quality of life for patients.

The dementia patients exposed to the humour therapy seemed more content by the end of the study.

According to lead researcher Lee-Fay Low at the School of Psychiatry in the University of New South Wales, anti-psychotic medications, which are usually used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, produce a similar improvement.

The humour programme did not just benefit patients, but also the staff who took care of them, the study found.

Therapist Joanne Rodregues said the staff reported feeling invigorated by the programme, which they said boosted their job satisfaction, because they could see the benefits themselves.

Bell said his Play-Up humour therapy programme, which is run through  Australia's Arts Health Institute, which he founded, focuses on encouraging patients to be more playful.

The institute seeks to train care-home staff how to maintain playfulness with their elderly patients, in particular, those with dementia.

Bell said he believed people should remain playful until they draw their last breath.

Experts at Oxford University have estimated that a million people will have dementia in the UK alone by 2026.

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