We’ve all heard the old adage that “laughter is the best medicine.” But how many of us really believe it? Can laughing really stave off the effects of aging and disease? There is some evidence that seems to indicate it is, in fact, possible.
Fighting heart disease with humor?
In 2009, researchers from the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore published a study that indicated people who had heart disease were 40% less likely to laugh in a variety of situations than people who did not. The study’s authors suggested that people who lack a robust sense of humor were, overall, more likely to develop heart disease than people who approached life with a well-developed sense of whimsy.
According to lead researcher Dr. Michael Miller, the reasons for laughter’s seemingly positive effect on vascular health are as yet unknown.
"We don't know yet why laughing protects the heart,” Miller reported, “but we know that mental stress is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack."
The question of whether or not an active sense of humor prevented heart disease from progressing, or whether the presence of heart disease in an individual tamped down that person’s ability to view situations as humorous (like many chronic, debilitating conditions, heart disease is associated with major depressive disorder) was left unanswered. But the study results were certainly intriguing to experts.
"The ability to laugh—either naturally or as learned behavior– may have important implications in societies such as the U.S. where heart disease remains the number one killer," says Miller. "We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list."
Laughter may be as beneficial as regular exercise.
Other studies seem to lend support to Miller’s conjecture.
In 2011, a study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry examined the effect of laughter yoga versus regular group exercise in elderly depressed women.
Laughter yoga is a global health movement that was founded by Dr. Madan Kataria, a Mumbai practitioner. First begun in 1995, the exercise uses directed group laughter, eye contact and movement to increase joyous and playful feelings among participants. Today, laughter yoga groups number almost 6,000 over 72 countries.
In the 2011 study, researchers found that elderly women with a history of depression who regularly participated in either an exercise therapy program or a laughter yoga group reported significant decreases in depressive feelings relative to women in a control group who did not exercise or perform laughter yoga.
More importantly, the researchers saw no significant difference in the level of positive feelings between laughter yoga participants and exercise therapy participants. If accurate, this data would support their supposition that laughter yoga is “at least as effective as [a] group exercise program” for improving life satisfaction in elderly women.
Some retirement communities are taking these lessons to heart.
So if approaching life with a sense of whimsy can lead to positive health benefits for seniors, what is to be done? A few retirement communities are trying to encourage a sense of play among their residents by producing hilarious calendars— starring those same residents.
In Essen, Germany— that’s right, even the stereotypically dour Germans occasionally let their hair down— Contilia Retirement Group produced a calendar featuring its residents re-enacting scenes from famous movies. From two nonagenarian men on chopper bikes (Easy Rider), to a 77-year-old woman’s turn as Liza Minelli’s character in Cabaret, these seniors are laughing it up and living easy.
Inspired by the success of the German project (and not to be outdone) Senior Living Communities— a network provider of retirement centers in the southeastern United States— produced its own movie spoofing, resident-starring calendar this year.
The Senior Living Communities calendar features scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean, Forrest Gump, Ghostbusters, Star Wars and even the iconic chocolate factory scene from I Love Lucy. Proceeds from sales of the calendar are being donated to charities of the residents’ choice.
And Emeritus Senior Living, another U.S.-based senior living solutions provider, spices its corporate blog up with the occasional geriatric joke post.
Senior life isn’t about getting old. It’s about enjoying the world around you.
There are clear health benefits to maintaining a positive outlook. From reducing depression, to preventing heart disease, a sense of humor can help you live long and happy into your golden years.