If You Notice This When Talking, It Could Be an Early Dementia Sign, Study Says
Research shows that this trait could be a sign of the condition.
Keeping an eye out for dementia is easier said than done. Since the onset of the disease can affect your memory and reasoning, you might miss some of the most common signs that the condition is developing. But there are some cases in which you might pick up on changes in someone else's behavior that could tip you off to something being wrong. According to research, you may even be able to spot the early signs of dementia just by talking to someone. Read on to see what conversational red flags you might want to be aware of.
Not laughing at the right time can be an early sign of dementia.
There will always be differences of opinion when it comes to what's actually funny. But according to a 2017 study, if someone isn't laughing during appropriate points in a conversation or laughs at the wrong time, it could be an early sign of dementia.
Researchers looked at 105 patients who had been diagnosed with dementia, along with 156 of their healthy family members. Participants were then outfitted with microphones and asked to discuss a mutually decided topic centered on a continuing disagreement in their relationship for 10 to 15 minutes. Trained coders then listened to their recorded conversations and tallied how many laughs came from each participant, including whenever someone made themselves laugh.
Patients diagnosed with dementia were recorded laughing at different times during the natural social interactions than their healthy family members. In particular, diagnosed patients laughed significantly less at themselves during the conversation, which researchers believe could result from the disease's known ability to decrease self-awareness.
Missing sarcasm or not understanding sarcastic comments could also be a sign of the condition.
Other research has found that missing a certain type of humor could also signify that cognitive decline is beginning to set in. A 2009 study from the University of California, San Francisco enlisted 175 participants, more than half of whom suffered from dementia or other neurodegenerative disorder. They were then shown short video clips of people having a conversation during which sarcasm was used and signaled using verbal cues or body language.
Participants were then asked questions about what had happened in the videos. The survey results showed that dementia patients were far less likely to pick up on sarcasm than healthy participants. Subsequent brain scans of patients using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) found that damage to the brain's frontal lobe, where the processing ability to pick up sarcasm is located, matched up in patients who were unable to detect the sarcastic comments.
"If somebody has strange behavior and they stop understanding things like sarcasm…they should see a specialist who can make sure this is not the start of one of these diseases," Katherine Rankin, PhD, one of the study's researchers and a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement.
Developing a darker sense of humor can also be a sign that cognitive decline has set in.
But it's not just a lack of laughter or missing humor cues that can be a sign of dementia. According to a 2015 study conducted by University College London (UCL), showing a newly warped sense of humor that is darker or inappropriate can be a major red flag for the neurodegenerative condition.
Researchers used questionnaires from the friends and familiar of 48 dementia patients who had known them for at least 15 years before their disease had begun to affect their behavior. Respondents then ranked each patient's sense of humor based on the types of comedy shows they enjoyed—including slapstick-style seen in programs such as Mr. Bean or absurdist humor seen in Monty Python—as well as any inappropriate humor they found funny.
Results showed that many respondents noticed a darker turn in patients' senses of humor around nine years before their official diagnosis, with some reportedly laughing at news coverage of events such as natural disasters. "These were marked changes—completely inappropriate humor well beyond the realms of even distasteful humor," Camilla Clark, PhD, one of the study's authors from UCL, told the BBC. "For example, one man laughed when his wife badly scalded herself."
Anyone concerned with these types of changes should speak to their doctor immediately.
Experts urge anyone who notices these kinds of behavioral changes, whether it's laughing too often or not enough, to seek out proper medical advice as soon as possible if they fear it's dementia. "While memory loss is often the first thing that springs to mind when we hear the word dementia, this study highlights the importance of looking at the myriad different symptoms that impact on daily life and relationships," Simon Ridley, PhD, from Alzheimer's Research U.K., told the BBC.
"A deeper understanding of the full range of dementia symptoms will increase our ability to make a timely and accurate diagnosis," he added.