Aug. 25, 2003 -- An elderly gentleman and a young whippersnapper walk into a bar. The bartender cracks a wry joke, but only the young one laughs. But a minute later when the young guy slips off his stool, the old guy lets out a howl of laughter.
When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
Turns out the older fellow hadn't really lost his sense of humor. He just didn't get the joke and prefers slapstick.
A new study shows that a person's appreciation of humor doesn't necessarily fade with age, but their ability to understand complex forms of humor might as mental abilities decline.
"The good news is that aging does not affect emotional responses to humor -- we'll still enjoy a good laugh when we get the joke," says researcher Prathiba Shammi, PhD, of the Baycrest Center for Geriatric Care in Toronto, in a news release.
But the bad news is that older adults may have a harder time processing complex humor such as irony and satire, which might explain why many older adults prefer slapstick humor.
Mental Ability Fades, Sense of Humor Remains
In the study, researchers compared the responses of 20 healthy older adults (average age 73) to 17 healthy younger adults (average 20) on three separate humor tests: appreciation of humorous verbal statements; joke and story completion; and nonverbal cartoon appreciation.
In the first test, participants had to pick out funny statements, such as a sign in a tailor's shop that read, "Please have a fit upstairs," from among a series of neutral statements like a hotel sign that read, "Visitors are requested to turn off the lights when they leave the room."
Researchers found that the older adults were just as good as their younger counterparts in finding the humorous statements and reacted appropriately with a smile or laugh when they understood the humor.
But older adults made many more errors on the other two tests where they had to select the correct punch line for a joke or find the funny version of a series of cartoons.
The results appear in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
The study also showed that the level of mental decline among the older adults was strongly associated with their ability to comprehend complex humor.
But despite these impairments in understanding certain types of humor, the older adults did not differ from their younger counterparts in their appreciation of humor overall.
Researchers say those findings suggest that a person's sense of humor persists well into old age and may perform an important role in coping with the stresses of aging.