A new study uses humor therapy rather than antipsychotic drugs to manage agitation in patients with dementia.

The approach avoids the serious side effects and drug interactions that often occur with antipsychotic medications.

The Australian study is the first major study of the impact of humor therapy on mood, agitation, behavioral disturbances and social engagement in dementia patients.

Participants displayed both short-term and persisting decrease in agitation, according to lead researcher, Dr. Lee-Fay Low.

The study spanned 36 Australian residential aged care facilities and involved the recruitment and training of a staff member to act as a “LaughterBoss.”

This individual worked with a humor practitioner with comedic and improvisation skills – not unlike “Clown Doctors” used in hospitals to aid recovery and lift mood in children.

The core program, called “Play Up,” provides a playful relationship with residents and staff in aged care, focusing particularly with people with dementia.

As the population ages so does the population of the “older, old” — those above the age of 85 years. Among this cohort, 22 percent of people have dementia – an umbrella term used to describe up to 60 different conditions causing similar neurodegenerative changes in the brain.

Between 70 and 80 percent of people suffering from dementia are troubled by agitation, a problem for both patients with the disease and their caregivers.

“Agitated behaviors include physical and verbal aggression, wandering, screaming and repetitive behaviors and questions. This is challenging for staff and often indicates unmet needs and distress in the residents of aged care facilities,” says Dr. Low.

The study found a 20 percent reduction in agitation using humor therapy, an improvement comparable to the common use of antipsychotic drugs.

“This shows humor therapy should be considered before medication for agitation, particularly taking into account its side effects.”

Moreover, participants in the study displayed decreased agitation, not only during the 12-week humor therapy program, but remained lower at 26-week followup.

Happiness and positive behaviors rose over the 12 weeks of the program; however, they dropped as soon as humor practitioner visits ceased.

Source: The University of New South Wales