updated 7/11/2007 8:07:28 AM ET 2007-07-11T12:07:28

It’s no laughing matter: a new study suggests older adults have a harder time getting jokes as they age.

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The research indicates that because older adults may have greater difficulty with cognitive flexibility, abstract reasoning and short-term memory, they also have greater difficulty with tests of humor comprehension.

Researchers at Washington University tested about 40 healthy adults over age 65 and 40 undergraduate students with exercises in which they had to complete jokes and stories. Participants also had to choose the correct punch line for verbal jokes and select the funny ending to series of cartoon panels.

Findings were published earlier this month in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

The research conducted by graduate student Wingyun Mak and psychology professor Brian Carpenter showed that the younger adults did 6 percent better on the verbal jokes and 14 percent better on the comic portion than did older participants, Mak said.

Researchers used a verbal joke test developed in 1983 and used in other humor studies. Mak added a new element, though, by showing participants cartoons from the Ferd’nand comic strip, and asking them to choose between four panels to locate the funny ending. Three of the choices for each cartoon were the wrong ones, created by an artist for the study.

“This wasn’t a study about what people find funny. It was a study about whether they get what’s supposed to be funny,” Carpenter said.

“There are basic cognitive mechanisms to understanding what’s going on in a joke. Older adults, because they may have deficits in some of those cognitive areas, may have a harder time understanding what a joke is about.”

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