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Humor Hampered by Aging Brain?

Older Adults Have a Harder Time Getting Jokes, Study Suggests
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 3, 2007 -- Age-related brain changes may make it harder for older adults to understand humor, a new study shows.

That's not to say that aging wipes out humor. The new study isn't about being funny or appreciating comedy. Instead, it's about picking the right punch line for a joke or cartoon.

The study comes from psychology graduate student Wingyun Mak and associate professor of psychology Brian Carpenter, PhD, of Washington University in St. Louis.

They studied 41 adults aged 65-93 and 40 college students who were about 20 years old, on average.

The older adults took a basic mental skills test. None had any obvious mental deficits.

Participants read the setup to 16 jokes and then had to choose the correct punch line for the joke. Here's an example of the joke quiz:

"A businessman is riding the subway after a hard day at the office. A young man sits down next to him and says, 'Call me a doctor ... call me a doctor.' The businessman asks, 'What's the matter, are you sick?'"

Participants then chose between the following answers:

  • The young man says, "I just graduated from medical school." (The correct answer).
  • The young man says, "Yes, I feel a little weak. Please help me."
  • The young man says, "My sister is a nurse."
  • The young man pulls out a water gun and squirts the businessman.

Participants took a similar cartoon test. They saw three panels of a four-panel cartoon and then had to choose the fourth panel of the cartoon.

Compared to the college students, the older adults were less likely to pick the right answer in both of those quizzes. The elders tended to go for the straightforward but unfunny answers -- such as the second answer to the joke example noted above.

All of the older adults had passed the mental skills test. But aging may have subtly affected the parts of their brain that are involved in humor comprehension, the researchers conclude.

With relatively few participants, it's hard to draw firm conclusions from the study. Mak and Carpenter call for further research on humor comprehension and aging, especially in light of the fact that humor may have physical and psychological benefits.

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