Massage therapy for older adults helps improve balance

Massage therapy for older adults is a promising way to help them retain health and independence.

Older adults who received an hour-long massage once a week for six weeks showed significant improvements in balance, neurological and cardiovascular measures. In the recent study, 35 volunteers were randomly assigned to the massage group or a control group.

Those who received massage therapy had lower blood pressure and more stability immediately after the sessions, an hour after and even a week after the regimen ended.

The participants were healthy volunteers aged 58 to 68 who were recruited through brochures and posters in medical offices, libraries, stores, fitness facilities and by word-of-mouth in and around Birmingham, Alabama. People with a history of chronic disease that affected balance, heart health or nervous system function were not eligible to participate.

Each person in the treatment group received a standard, 60-minute massage therapy protocol once a week for six consecutive weeks. The study, published in 2012, is especially significant because most prior research examined the effects of a single session.

Older adults need options to help them stay independent and active, and massage may be a great non-pharmaceutical approach. Falls, many of them debilitating if not fatal, occur in one of every three adults 65 and older. Health care costs associated with falls alone are expected to reach $32 billion by 2020, according to a 2009 study.

Multiple factors contribute to falls among older adults, including visual system influences, balance impairment, and cardiovascular and neurological conditions. Falls break hips and arms, cause head injuries, and contribute to decline in quality of life.

Even bruising and emotional trauma from a fall can make someone more hesitant – and lack of confidence can compound the risk of additional incidents. Trying to compensate for muscle imbalances, pain and new or old injuries often actually cause the fall.

We already know massage therapy reduces pain and improves clients’ sense of well being. This study suggests that regular massage for older adults can do far, far more.

The study by JoEllen M. Sefton, Ceren Yarar and Jack W. Berry, Neuromechanics Research Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, Auburn University, AL, and Department of Psychology, Samford University, Birmingham, AL, was published in the September 2012 issue of the InternatIonal Journal of TherapeutIc Massage and Bodywork.