SALT LAKE CITY – The number of Mormon missionaries surpassed 75,000 worldwide in August, driven by the church’s decision to lower the minimum age for ambassadors of the Utah-based faith.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported the number of proselytizing missionaries has increased by 28 percent from about 58,000 a year ago.

The church expects the number to swell to 85,000 by year’s end.

Last October, the church announced men could begin serving at 18, instead of 19, and women at 19, instead of 21.

Church leaders and outside scholars expect the decision will lead to many more women serving missions. Rather than having to leave at age 21 — when many women are about to start careers or perhaps are contemplating marriage and starting families — Mormon women can now serve missions shortly after high school.

Young Mormon men are expected, but not required, to serve missions. Historically, women have faced far less pressure to serve. Men serve two years while women go for 18 months.

Church scholars say the unprecedented number of missionaries gives Mormons an opportunity to bring in a higher number of converts, and perhaps more importantly, do a better job of keeping current members active.

The church reported having 14.4 million members worldwide as of January 2012. Missionaries convert about five people per mission, according to Matt Martinich, a member of the LDS church who analyzes membership and missionary numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation.