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Laughter really could be the best medicine when it comes to treating older people with dementia.

Nursing home residents with dementia who were treated to amusing visits from a "humour therapist" and cared for by staff under the watchful eye of a "laughter boss" were found to be less agitated than those receiving more straight-laced care.

Four hundred residents from 36 nursing homes took part in the SMILE study led by University of NSW researchers who wanted to see if humour had an effect on people with dementia in terms of their mood, agitation levels, behaviour and social engagement.

The researchers worked with "humour therapist" Jean-Paul Bell, who co-founded the Humour Foundation and works as a "clown doctor" cheering up patients in children's hospitals.

Mr Bell replaced his crazy clown doctor outfit with one of an elevator attendant to become a "humour valet" for half the nursing home residents, most of whom had dementia, for three months.

The remaining 200 residents did not receive any extra doses of humour.

Mr Bell raised a smile or two by chatting away to imaginary people on the end of an old-style telephone handset and waved a magic wand about, asking residents what they wished for.

A member of staff at the nursing homes was also trained to be a "laughter boss" to ensure carers incorporated humour into their daily routines to maintain the cheery atmosphere.

Lead researcher Dr Lee-Fay Low said residents who received humour therapy showed a 20 per cent reduction in agitated behaviour such as aggression, wandering, screaming and repetitive behaviour.

She said she hoped the results would encourage more nursing homes to inject a bit more humour into their care routines.

"There's evidence to show that people with dementia still experience humour and to the same amount of enjoyment as people without dementia but they find different things funny," Dr Low said.

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