We are all familiar with the saying, "laughter is the best medicine." And this motto may ring true when it comes to tackling age-related memory loss; a 2014 study from Loma Linda University in California finds that humor may reduce brain damage caused by the "stress hormone" cortisol, which in turn, improves memory.
The research team, led by Dr. Gurinder Singh Bains, presented their findings at the Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego.
It is well known that too much stress can negatively affect health. Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that stress may worsen allergies, while other research indicates that it makes the brain more susceptible to mental illness.
Past research has also shown that stress can worsen memory and learning ability in elderly individuals. This is because stress increases production of cortisol - a hormone that can cause damage to neurons in the brain.
Since it is well known that laughter can be a stress reliever, the research team wanted to determine whether humor may reduce brain damage caused by cortisol.
Watching a funny video 'reduced cortisol levels and boosted memory performance'
The researchers analyzed one group of elderly individuals who had diabetes and another group of elderly people who were healthy.
Both groups were required to view a 20-minute humorous video, before completing a memory test that measured their visual recognition, learning ability and memory recall.
A third group of elderly individuals were asked to complete the memory test without watching the funny video. The team then compared the results of all three groups.
Cortisol levels for all participants were recorded before and after the experiments.
The investigators found that both groups who watched the humorous video showed a significant reduction in cortisol levels, compared with the group that did not view the video.
The groups that watched the funny video also showed greater improvement in memory recall, learning ability and sight recognition, compared with those who did not watch the video. The diabetic group demonstrated the greatest improvement in both cortisol levels and memory test scores.
'Laughter may improve memory and quality of life'
Study co-author Dr. Lee Burk says these findings suggests that the less stress a person has, the better their memory performance, and humor may be the key to reducing stress levels.
"Humor reduces detrimental stress hormones like cortisol that decrease memory hippocampal neurons, lowers your blood pressure, and increases blood flow and your mood state," he explains.
"The act of laughter - or simply enjoying some humor - increases the release of endorphins and dopamine in the brain, which provides a sense of pleasure and reward."
He says that these neurochemical changes in the brain also increase "gamma wave band frequency," which can improve memory.
"So, indeed," he adds, "laughter is turning out to be not only a good medicine, but also a memory enhancer adding to our quality of life."
Dr. Bains says the team's findings may offer benefits that can be applied to wellness programs for elderly individuals, adding:
"The cognitive components - learning ability and delayed recall - become more challenging as we age and are essential to older adults for an improved quality of life: mind, body and spirit.
Although older adults have age-related memory deficits, complimentary, enjoyable and beneficial humor therapies need to be implemented for these individuals."
Laughter may not be the only way to boost memory. Medical News Today recently reported on a study suggesting that green tea may improve working memory, while other research from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland found that caffeine may boost long-term memory.