Could a Change in Sense of Humor Signal Dementia?

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on November 11, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 11, 2015 -- A change in a person’s sense of humor could be an early red flag of dementia, according to a new study.

The idea that our taste in comedy could be used to predict our chances of getting Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia may sound strange, but researchers say it could prove to be a valuable tool for improving the diagnosis of these diseases.

The team at University College London (UCL) were interested in how sense of humor can change in people with Alzheimer's -- the leading cause of dementia -- and in those with frontotemporal dementia. That type of the disease tends to occur among younger people; damage to part of the brain causes changes to personality, behavior and understanding of language.

Memory troubles are not an early warning sign of frontotemporal dementia. Instead, people tend to have behavior and personality changes first.

The researchers found that people with this condition experienced a change in what they found funny, compared to healthy individuals and people with Alzheimer's. This included laughing at events that others would not find funny, such as a badly parked car or a barking dog.

When they analyzed questionnaires and anecdotes, they found that people with the type of frontotemporal dementia that affected their personality frequently had a "sick" sense of humor, where they might laugh inappropriately at tragic events on the news or in their personal life. This did not happen in people with Alzheimer's.

The researchers also found that people with both frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer's tended to prefer slapstick humor to satirical and absurdist humor.

Friends and relatives reported seeing these changes on average at least 9 years before the start of more typical dementia symptoms, the researchers say.

"As sense of humor defines us and is used to build relationships with those around us, changes in what we find funny has impacts far beyond picking a new favorite TV show,” says Dr. Camilla Clark, who led the research at the UCL Dementia Research Centre.

"We’ve highlighted the need to shift the emphasis from dementia being solely about memory loss.

"These findings have implications for diagnosis -- not only should personality and behavior changes ring alarm bells, but clinicians themselves need to be more aware of these symptoms as an early sign of dementia. As well as providing clues to underlying brain changes, subtle differences in what we find funny could help differentiate between the different diseases that cause dementia. Humor could be a particularly sensitive way of detecting dementia, because it puts demands on so many different aspects of brain function, such as puzzle solving, emotion, and social awareness."

Commenting on the study in a statement, Dr. Simon Ridley, director of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, says: "While memory loss is often the first thing that springs to mind when we hear the word dementia, this study highlights the importance of looking at the myriad different symptoms that impact on daily life and relationships."

A friend’s or a loved one’s sense of humor could change for a number of reasons, including non-medical ones. If you’re concerned, get in touch with a doctor, and tell them what you’ve noticed.