Ever heard the one about the doctor who gave his patient six months to live? When the man couldn't pay his bill, the doctor gave him another six months.
Go ahead, laugh. It's strong medicine, researchers are learning. Even the physical act is good for you, says William Fry, an American university professor who is a pioneer in laughter research. It increases blood flow and contracts abdominal muscles. A hundred belly laughs is the aerobic equivalent of ten mintues on a rowing-exercise machine, according to Fry.
But the benefits go beyound a workout. The most astonishing evidence of laughter's power comes from a 1997 study of 48 heart-attack patients. Half watched comedy shows for 30 mintues every day; the rest served as controls. After a year, ten patients in the control group had suffered repeat heart attacks, compared with only two in the group that watched the shows.
"Laughter is a powerful antidote to stress," says laughter expert Lee Berk of the University of California and co-author of the heart-attack study. In earlier research, Berk showed that watching a humorous video decreases levels of two key stress hormones that can cause irregular hear rhythms which may lead to heart attacks. Indeed, heart disease patients are often given drugs called beta-blockers specifically to block these hormones. "Laughter can do exactly the same thing," says Berk. "And it can be a lot more fun."
Can a good laugh help patients get well? In a landmark experiment at the University of California, called Rx Laughter, scientists plan to test the effect of laughter in children with serious illnesses, including cancer. Early results suggest that humorous videos help kids handle uncomfortable or painful procedures.
Justin Ybarra, 13, already knows that. he was in considerable pain when he woke up from surgery -- untill Bill Marx, son of the legendary Harpo Marx and a volunteer for Rx Laughter, appeared at his bedside. Marx told jokes, made faces and pranced around the hospital room.
"Having something to laugh at took my mind off the pain," says Justin. "When you're laughing, you can't help but feel better."
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