can older adults take a joke?

Canadian researchers report in the September issue of the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society that senior citizens can still enjoy a good joke — as long as it’s not too complicated. Prathiba Shammi and Donald Stuss, psychologists at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, explored how aging affects humor comprehension. In their small study, they tested 20 older adults (average age 73) and 17 younger adults (average age 28), all healthy and fluent in English, in three humor categories — appreciation of humorous verbal statements, joke and story completion, and nonverbal cartoon appreciation.

In the first test, participants had to pick out humorous statements (such as a sign in a tailor shop stating “Please have a fit upstairs”) from neutral ones. In the second test, participants had to pick the correct punch line to the setup of a joke from a series of answers, including a straightforward, logical ending, a non sequitur, etc. In the last test, participants had to look at a series of cartoons and decide which held the funny detail.

The researchers found that older adults performed just as well as younger ones in identifying funny statements from neutral ones, but in the last two, more-complex tests, they made significantly more mistakes. The researchers also discovered a relationship between the decline of cognitive abilities and a higher error rate in picking out humorous punch lines and cartoons. The authors caution that this is a preliminary study and that humor is extremely subjective. In a press release, Shammi stated: “The good news is that aging does not affect emotional responses to humor. We’ll still enjoy a good laugh when we get the joke.”

This news brief appeared in the Random Data column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 9/09/2003.
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