Not exactly. A small study from the UK suggests that a change in a person’s sense of humor over time could be an early sign of a certain type of dementia called frontotemporal dementia (FTD). This disorder is the result of progressive loss of brain cells in the frontal lobes (behind the forehead) or the temporal lobes (behind the ears). FTD is the most common cause of dementia in people under the age of 55. Early symptoms of FTD include changes in behavior and personality, rather than the memory problems seen with Alzheimer’s disease. Investigators from the University College London (UCL) who looked at behavioral changes among patients with a variant of FTD, found that these individuals had an altered sense of humor, a change not seen in Alzheimer’s patients or healthy people. For example, the researchers said that people developing FTD would laugh at a barking dog or a badly parked car and often laughed inappropriately at tragic news events or unfortunate occurrences in their personal lives.
They reached these conclusions on the basis of the responses of friends and relatives of 48 patients with different forms of FTD and Alzheimer’s to questionnaires seeking information on the patients’ preferences for different kinds of comedy. The UCL team also asked about instances OF inappropriate humor and any changes the respondents had observed over the past 15 years in the patients’ preferences in humor.
While inappropriate humor seemed limited to those with FTD, the study did show a shift in what people with both the FTD variant and those with Alzheimer’s found funny. The researchers reported that patients with both these types of dementia tended to prefer slapstick humor, while their healthy peers in the same age range tended to prefer satirical and absurdist humor (think Monty Python). Friends and relatives reported observing these shifts an average of at least 9 years before more typical symptoms of dementia occurred.
“Changes in what we find funny have impacts far beyond picking a new favorite TV show,” said lead investigator Camilla Clark, M.D. The new findings suggest that doctors should be aware that personality and behavior changes can be early signs of dementia and that subtle differences in what we find funny “could help differentiate between the different diseases that cause dementia,” Dr. Clark added.
Commenting on the study, Simon Ridley, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said larger and longer studies are needed to understand how and when changes in humor could “act as a red flag for underlying brain changes,” especially those leading to dementia.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Camilla Clark et al, “Altered Sense of Humor in Dementia.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, September 24, 2015, DOI: 10.3233/JAD-150413