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Laughter as Medicine: A new approach to Health and Wellness

With nearly 10 million Americans turning 65 each day, the American caregiving system is seeing a sharp increase in the demand for senior health care. As older adults continue to age, many will experience conditions that over time will require additional support and assistance with basic daily tasks. According to the National Institute on Aging, approximately 85 percent of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, and 60 percent have at least two chronic conditions. For many people, learning to cope with multiple chronic conditions is a challenge, and learning how to manage treatments while maintaining quality of life can be problematic. To address this growing concern for older adults, many healthcare providers are suggesting an untraditional form of care: laughter.

The use of laughter has been used in the medical space for centuries, but researchers began collecting data on its use as medicine in the 1960’s, after renowned journalist Norman Cousins noted his own medical journey with laughter. After becoming diagnosed with a painful spinal condition, Cousins nursed himself back to health by watching comedy programs, which allowed him to relax and rest, helping him gain strength. Since then, researchers have confirmed the medical benefits of laughter on one’s overall health, especially for older adults.

Medical Benefits of Laughter for Older Adults

While laughter doesn’t cure everything, researchers agree it can strengthen the immune system, boost mood, diminish pain and provide protection against the damaging effects of stress. As experts continue to research the benefits of laughter on overall health, data suggests it has many physical, mental, and social benefits.

Physical Benefits

Mental health experts agree that even at its most basic level, laughter has physical health benefits. When a person laughs, their diaphragm stretches, allowing more oxygen to enter the body and stimulate the lungs. The basic act of laughing relaxes physical tension in the muscles and allows the body to rest. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter also has the following benefits.

  • Stimulates organs.  Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.
  • Soothes tension. Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.
  • Improves the immune system. Chemical reactions brought on by negative thinking can bring more stress into the body and decrease immunity. Positive thoughts, brought on by laughter, help release neuropeptides that fight stress and serious illnesses.  
  • Prevents heart disease. Researchers believe there is a link between laughter and reduced risk of heart disease. A study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, asked a group of healthy adults to choose between a humorous video and a documentary. The study noted that artery function immediately improved in participants who chose the comedy. Artery function decreased slightly in those who watched a documentary.
  • Improves sleep and boosts immunity. Laughter causes the body to produce more melatonin, which is the body’s natural sleep hormone.  

Mental Benefits

According to the American Psychological Association, our bodies are well-equipped to handle small periods of stress. Caregivers report high levels of stress when caring for their loved ones, especially when the person they’re supporting is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

 When stress becomes chronic or long-term, it can have serious effects on all systems of the body including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems. Healthcare professionals believe laughter should be included in stress management plans because of the way it reduces stress:

  • Hormones. Laughter reduces the level of stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine and dopamine. Laughter also increases the number of antibody-producing cells in our bodies to create a stronger immune system.
  • Physical release. Stress can cause emotions to build-up, while laughter provides a physical and emotional release.
  • Distraction. Laughter brings the focus away from anger, guilt, stress, and negative emotions and focuses on light-heartedness and positivity.
  • Perspective. Even in times of illness and anxiety, humor can provide a different perspective and help us view events as challenges instead of threats.
  • Improves mood. Laughter causes the release of endorphins which are the body’s natural mood boosting hormones.

Social Benefits

Loneliness and social isolation in older adults are serious public health concerns. A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine states that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. Both caregivers and the person they are supporting are at an increased risk of loneliness and isolation. However, laughter can provide a number of social benefits that can help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation for you and your loved one:

  • Strengthens relationships. Laughter has the ability to relieve tension between two individuals in a stressful situation. Research suggests that shared laughter between a couple is closely correlated with relationship satisfaction.
  • Brings people together. Sharing laughter creates a bond between two individuals that can spark feelings of closeness and trust, which can help combat feelings of isolation, loneliness, and depression.
  • Adds positivity to conversations. Using humor to navigate difficult situations can remove negative feelings and emotional barriers between the caregiver and their loved one. Humor has the power to create positive interactions and paves the way for better discussions.
  • Help you understand yourself and others. Laughter plays an essential role in how we understand ourselves and others. Humor gives us the ability to practice empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. Laughter also helps us to cope anxiety, fear, and grief.

Laughter Exercises

When we laugh, we change physiologically. The muscles in our face and body stretch, our pulse goes up and we breathe faster which sends more oxygen into our bodies. Laughter can be initiated in a number of ways, one of which is through laughter exercise. The American School of Laughter Yoga recommends the following laughter exercises for caregivers and their loved ones:

  • Gradient Laughter: Fake a smile, giggle and then laugh slowly. Gradually increase the tempo and volume of your laughter.
  • Hearty Laughter: Spread your arms out beside you, look up and laugh heartily from deep down inside.
  • I Don’t Know Why I Am Laughing: Laugh and shrug your shoulders as you look at yourself in a mirror. Use your eyes and body language to convey the message that you have no idea why you are laughing!
  • Find Your Laughter Center: Probe your head with one finger as if looking for your laughter center. Imagine that each spot you push on triggers a different type of laughter and then act it out.
  • Conductor Laughter: Imagine you are a conductor. Direct an imaginary orchestra with enthusiastic arm movements as you sing a song of your choice in laughter sounds only, such as “ho ho ho” or “ha ha ha.”

Prioritizing Laughter at Maplewood Senior Living

At Maplewood Senior Living, we know how important laughter is for a person’s overall well-being. That’s why we’ve included it in our nine essential building blocks of healthy aging. Our communities provide residents daily opportunities for connection, socialization and laughter. To learn more about our communities or to schedule a tour, please contact us.


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1 Gorham Island Rd

Westport, CT 06880


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