The Bluths will be returning to the small screen over Memorial Day weekend. Although Arrested Development fans may believe watching the show improves their health - "laughter is the best medicine" - a recently published review of humor suggests there is great discrepancy between the common perception of humor's health benefits and scientific findings on the topic.

Citing data from the Terman life-cycle study, Gil Greengross, anthropology professor from the University of New Mexico, said that those who were rated by parents and teachers as having a higher sense of humor as children were more likely to smoke and consume alcohol as adults; they also died at a younger age when compared to those with less humor. The findings of the Terman life-cycle study, which followed a large number of gifted individuals over many decades, refute the popular belief that humor is beneficial for physical health.

This is consistent with other research that shows individuals with a greater sense of humor tend to engage in less healthy lifestyle behaviors. In a study about the personalities and lifestyles of entertainers, James Rotton, a professor of psychology at Florida International University, found that comedians and humor writers, as well as serious entertainers and writers, died younger than individuals who achieved fame in other areas, as documented in the obituaries of Times and Newsweek magazines. In a longitudinal study with a very different sample - 53 Finnish police officers - occupational health psychologist at Suomen Terveystalo, Paavo Kerkkanen, Ph.D., found that higher scores on some sense of humor scales were associated with more obesity, increased smoking, and greater risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

One likely cause for the poor health of people who had a good sense of humor as children, explained Greengross in his survey "Humor and Aging - A Mini-Review," is that humorous individuals, having a generally less serious perspective, may take health risks more lightly and consequently engage in more risky behaviors than less humorous individuals.

Greengross' assessment does not end with the news that more comical people may have shorter lifespans. His review also finds that older people enjoy humor more than younger people, even if they have increasing difficulties in understanding jokes.

Aging And Laughter

When asked to describe what constitutes successful aging, elderly people mention a sense of humor as one of the most important virtues. Research also suggests that elderly women use humor as a coping mechanism and are more sensitive to humor that references age. Generally, aging may hinder the ability to produce humor, Greengross noted, but jokes are perceived to be funnier; the results of various studies show that a decline in cognitive abilities associated with aging influences humor comprehension as well as humor "production."

According to incongruity-resolution theory, comedy emerges from two incompatible parts that at first do not seem to make sense, but when the incongruity is resolved, the humor is appreciated. The following joke exemplifies the theory:

O'Reilly was on trial for armed robbery. The jury came out and announced, 'Not guilty.' 'Wonderful', said O'Reilly, 'does that mean I can keep the money?'

To test for the ability to understand humor and to produce humor, many studies look to the incongruous. Researchers often give participants a series of jokes and then ask them to explain the reasons the jokes are considered funny. Essentially, participants are being asked to recognize the incongruity in the joke. In other instances, subjects are given the setup of a joke and are asked to choose the correct punch line from a list of sentences.

One study aiming to test the effects of aging on humor compared the responses of young and elderly subjects. Humor comprehension was assessed by asking participants to rate a series of humorous and neutral statements. Humor production ability was measured by presenting subjects with jokes from which the punch lines had been removed, and asking them to choose the right ending from a list of sentences. Participants were divided into two groups: the aged group, 20 high-functioning and cognitively-intact elderly subjects, and the young group, 17 subjects. Researchers found that the aged group comprehended the humor as well as the young group but perceived it as funnier than the young group. More than the young, the aged also thought the neutral statements to be funnier.

However, the aged group made significantly more errors when compared to the young group in the joke completion task. They not only chose more wrong endings for jokes, but also chose the wrong cartoon in a task that asked them to identify funny cartoons from non-funny ones.

One possible explanation for the decline in the ability to produce humor may be task difficulty. Creating humor, after all, is a more difficult task than distinguishing between funny and unfunny statements. "The frontal lobe is likely responsible for this decline, especially the right frontal region," wrote Greengross. "Six patients who suffered from damage to this region performed poorly on all humor tests, compared to the aged sample. Thus, it is possible that a slow decline in frontal lobe functioning is responsible for the impairment in the cognitive abilities that influence humor production ability, while enjoyment of humor stays intact."

Thank goodness for small favors: Even the old will be able to share the yucks when Arrested Development returns this weekend. No touching!

Source: Greengross, G. Humor and Aging - A Mini-Review. Gerontology. 2013.