48% of all massage consumers got their last massage for health and wellness reasons.
Despite numerous studies proving the power of touch therapies on physical, mental, and emotional health—these benefits seem lost on older adults—especially Americans. Demand for massage in the 65+ category has remained flat over the years, whereas the 55 to 64 age group has crept up slightly, driven by the baby boomers’ demand for massage and all things wellness, according to the AMTA (American Massage Therapy Association) 2023 research report.
The Touch Research Institute (TRI) at the University of Miami School of Medicine has produced more than 100 studies and 350 medical-journal articles over a period of more than three decades. TRI founder Tiffany Field, PhD is a world-renowned authority on touch.
"We've found that whether we're studying pain or psychiatric problems or attention problems, autoimmune problems such as diabetes, and immune-system problems like cancer, they all benefit from massage. There’s not a single condition we’ve looked at—including cancer—that hasn’t responded positively to massage.” Massage works because it changes your whole physiology.” Field said in a interview on the podcast Outside the Room, hosted by CG Funk, Senior Vice President of Culture and Industry Relations for Massage Heights Franchising and Board of Director Member at the International SPA Association.
According to TRI’s findings, the health effects of touch come from moving the skin. When pressure receptors under the skin are stimulated, they send messages to the brain to slow the nervous system down, which decreases cortisol and increases dopamine and serotonin. The result is a chain of positive physiological changes, including decreased heart rate and blood pressure, which cause an overarching commonality of benefits, such as reducing stress, increasing immune function and relieving pain, in a variety of disorders and diseases.
Massage has been proven to lessen depression and anxiety, reduce stress, and improve sleep. It lowers cortisol levels and higher levels of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, known as the love hormone. In addition to being good for you, massage feels good.
Wendy Bosalavage, Chief Revenue Officer for LIVunLtd, has been a strong proponent of making touch therapies available to older adults—for the mind as much as the body. “Massage is a proven method to improve mental health—relaxes the body and the mind and allows you to practice mindfulness."
Intentional touch from one human being to another fills a social void. connection. During the first quarter of 2022, Dr. Field did 168 interviews with media across the world and an hour-long BBC special on touch deprivation during Covid. As the most vulnerable to illness, the elderly population were hit the hardest. “Humans have a biological, universal need for contact with others. Without it, skin hunger, or touch starvation ensues,” said Field. “
There are several barriers that prevent older adults from valuing and receiving touch therapy.
Massage is stigmatized
In the U.S., there are issues around touch as being somehow “dirty” or “bad,” which stigmatizes the massage therapy profession. In some states, massage licensure is administered by the police department instead of the state board because it is considered an ‘undesirable practice,’ with reference to either human trafficking, escort services and prostitution.
Americans are not touchy-feely.
A TRI study observed couples in cafes in France and the U.S., to see how often they touched each other. In the U.S., it was approximately once every 30 minutes. In Paris, it was 20 times every 30 minutes. “The pandemic has given the Americans a like an opportunity to even touch each other less, but we were already not touching each other,” Dr. Fields observed.
Offering massage therapy can be challenging both from a zoning and a licensing standpoint Every state has its own laws regarding the regulation of massage. Some states prohibit massage in a residentially zoned building, for example. Other states allow massage, but only for the occupants of the building. At the most extreme, some states like Illinois require geriatric massage to be performed by a licensed healthcare worker.
Baby Boomers will Drive Demand for Massage
Despite the challenges, all signs point to touch therapy gaining respect as an essential component of wellness. “We as boomers are already used to getting these types of services, so the demand is going to increase as we age. You and I are going to stop getting massage when we turn 70,” says Funk.