Doctor and patientThe things that make you laugh may have caused plenty of arguments about which movie to see at the theater over the years, but they’ve never been of much clinical interest to doctors… until now.

As The Wall Street Journal reports, a new study conducted by University College London and published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease has found that changes in a person’s sense of humor can signal oncoming dementia by as much as ten years.

The Journal cites stories of people with dignified senses of humor who suddenly became snide, or those who’ve always adored satire but then took an unexpected interest in slapstick. For some, it could be a simple shift in personality, but many of those people go on to develop dementia.

Why is that? Dr. Jason Warren, one of the neurologists responsible for the study, puts it like this: “Humor is like a stress test. The same way you’re on a treadmill to test the cardiovascular system, complex jokes are stressing the brain more than usual.”

Until now, scientists have looked primarily to memory as a marker of cognitive change. But the patient’s sense of humor may hold more diagnostic value because friends and family are more likely to pick up on changes in humor than to notice subtle memory problems.

I rather like the way that the Journal sizes up our brain’s relationship with the comedy we enjoy:

“…Most forms of humor require some form of cognitive sleight-of-hand. ‘Getting’ satire hinges on the ability to shift perspective in a nanosecond. Absurdist jokes play fast and loose with our grasp of logic and social norms; black humor lampoons taboos. All are a rich source of data about the brain.”

Data about the brain is exactly what makes this study so encouraging — we are getting more and more of that data all the time. The ability to recognize new warning signs of dementia as much as a decade in advance could be game changing for people we know and love — maybe even for ourselves. It’s no laughing matter, but I know I’ll appreciate the things that do make me laugh all the more now.

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