Massage therapy has been shown to assist elders’ health in various ways, from reducing pain and anxiety to improving balance and agility.

As the senior population grows, therapists’ clientele may reflect that aging trend, and massage may find an increased health care role—especially as new research shows Americans entering their 60s will suffer far more disabilities than their counterparts did in previous generations.

In July the U.S. Census Bureau released a report that showed the average age of the world’s population is increasing at an unprecedented rate, and that in just over 30 years the proportion of people age 65 and over will double from 7 percent to 14 percent of the total world population,

For the new study, researchers at the University of California—Los Angeles used two sets of data —the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) for 1988 and 1999 to examine how disabilities for the three groups of adults aged 60, 70 and 80 and older had changed over time, according to a UCLA press release.

They assessed disability trends in four areas: basic activities associated with daily living, such as walking from room to room and getting into and out of bed; instrumental activities, such as performing household chores or preparing meals; mobility, including walking one-quarter mile or climbing 10 steps without stopping for rest; and functional limitations, which include stooping, crouching or kneeling.

The researchers found that between the periods 1988 and 1999, disability among those in their 60s increased between 40 and 70 percent in each area studied except functional limitations, independent of sociodemographic characteristics, health status and behaviors, and relative weight. The increases were considerably higher among non-white and overweight subgroups.

“Increases in disability in that group are concerning because it’s a big group,” said Teresa Seeman, UCLA professor of medicine and epidemiology and the study’s principal investigator. “These may be people who have longer histories of being overweight, and we may be seeing the consequences of that. We’re not sure why these disabilities are going up. But if this trend continues, it could have a major impact on us, due to the resources that will have to be devoted to those people.”

By contrast, the researchers found no significant changes among the group aged 70 to 79, while the 80-plus group actually saw a drop in functional limitations.

One reason for this change, researchers say, is that disabilities may be linked with the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the group that recently reached or will soon be reaching its 60s, with the most rapid growth projected to be among African Americans and Hispanics — groups with significantly higher rates of obesity and lower socioeconomic status, both of which are associated with higher risk for functional limitations and disabilities.

“If this trend continues unchecked, it will put increasing pressure on our society to take care of these disabled individuals,” Seeman said. “This would just put more of a burden on the health care system to address the higher levels of these problems.”

The National Institute on Aging funded this study.