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Why humor matters with Parkinson's

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

You’ve probably heard the saying that laughter is the best medicine. There’s some evidence for it (see: laughter prescription). Laughter has been shown in studies to boost the immune system, lower anxiety and stress, and trigger the release of endorphins. At the same time, some scientists are skeptical about the results, citing the lack of evidence to date. 

While some scientists remain unconvinced, humor has been shown in some research as a desirable trait, with participants linking intelligence, creativity and confidence to a sense of humor. Women who found their men to be humorous also indicated having and initiating sex more often, and generally feeling more committed.

In Parkinson’s disease (PD), there is research that indicates people with PD have a lower appreciation for humor. While researchers don’t know exactly why, they hypothesize the structures and systems in the brain needed to unlock the code humor often comes in are disrupted with PD. Logic, attention, working memory, mental flexibility and verbal abstraction have all been shown to be impaired in some people with PD. They also point to the difficulty some people with Parkinson’s (PWP) have showing emotion and recognizing emotions in others. This blank or frozen look is often called the Parkinson’s mask.

There is a similar deficit in the connection between the brain and the body for most PWP. Dr. Jay Albert’s studies on forced exercise have shown that exercising at a specific rate for a specific time period three times a week can reduce symptoms of PD by as much as 35 percent. In a similar vein, part of my work here at i2ipd is to figure out the improv games that result in a reduction of symptoms, particularly in terms of anxiety, depression and perhaps even fear of falling measures. Another level of this is measuring perception of humor. Can practicing improvisation in a social setting increase one’s ability to find things funny? Can improv also help a person perceive herself as funny, therefore boosting her confidence and, perhaps, willingness to engage socially?

These are all part of my research going forward in my PhD program and the development of YAX. Thank you to all who have participated so far. Please remember, this is a program for everyone with, affected by or serving the PD community. We can raise each other up with laughter and support. I encourage you to share this with others in your PD community.

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