Could this be the first warning sign of dementia?

It can be difficult to know if a loved-one’s forgetfulness or absentmindedness is the tip of a frightening iceberg, but a new study from the UK has suggested there may be a tell-tale sign that a person is developing dementia, and it can happen many years before a diagnosis.

Researchers from the University College London asked friends and family of patients with frontotemporal dementia about the years leading up to their diagnosis and noticed a common thread.

Many of the people who answered the questionnaires reported that their loved one’s sense of humour had begun to change.

They reported they were more likely to laugh inappropriately at tragic events, or found sad things funny when they shouldn’t have.

Frontotemporal dementia is one of the more rare forms of the disease and it affects the part of the brain involved with personality and behaviour. The BBC reports that people with this kind of dementia are more likely to mishandle social situations, lose inhibition and become more impulsive.

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Dr Camilla Clark and colleagues asked the friends or relatives of the 48 patients to rate how much they liked different kinds of comedy, including “slapstick comedy such as Mr Bean, satirical comedy such as Yes, Minister or absurdist comedy such as Monty Python“. They also asked if there were any examples of inappropriate humour.

Nearly all of the respondents said they had noticed a change in their loved-one’s sense of humour in the nine years before the dementia had been diagnosed.

The dementia patients tended to prefer slapstick to satirical humour, when compared with 21 healthy people of a similar age. Many of them had also developed a dark sense of humour.

Dr Clark said, “These were marked changes – completely inappropriate humour well beyond the realms of even distasteful humour. For example, one man laughed when his wife badly scalded herself”

More studies are now required to understand how and when changes in humour could act as a red flag for dementia.

Have you had experience with dementia? Did you notice any changes to a loved one’s sense of humour?