What is the key to a long and happy life? 

Samir Sinha avatar

What is the key to a long and happy life?

This isn’t posed as a philosophical exercise, but rather a question that’s keeping geriatricians awake at night.

It’s clear there’s no magic pill for longevity or its management. Yet for the likes of Dr. Samir Sinha, Director of Geriatrics at Mount Sinai and a recent guest in NOW: Pensions’ Pioneering Pensions series, looking beyond the financial aspects of retirement and at the link between health and wealth is informing much of the latest thinking for what policymakers and pension providers (more on these later) can do to ensure happy and productive later years for their clients and by proxy, for society at large. Among geriatricians, Dr. Samir is perhaps unique as he also applies his knowledge to look at the global issue of aging societies.

A note on geriatricians

You might think with an aging population the field of gerontology would be a growing discipline, but as Dr. Samir points out, the New Yorker recently observed geriatricians are a ‘rare and endangered species’. For every 10 paediatricians in Canada where Dr. Samir is based, there is only one geriatrician. The irony is that while birth rates are falling and many are getting older. And despite that the medical education and healthcare sector has not adapted to the demographic glacier.

Yet geriatricians have specialities that go beyond what’s taught in medical schools, considering ‘whole of life’ patient health. This is important as there’s no ‘typical’ older patient. As Dr. Samir says, when you’ve met one older patient, you’ve met one older patient. Their health, outlook and needs will ultimately be very different. However, government policy responses to the elderly veer towards uniformity the world over. The same can be said about the retirement solutions that are discussed among pension professionals.

The longevity divide

In Canada, the wealthiest members of society live on average more than a decade longer than the poorest. Financial stress has been linked to various health issues, including anxiety and depression, both of which take their toll on health and wellbeing. Having a stable, secure and adequate income in retirement is undoubtedly an important contributor to increased longevity.

Yet wealth alone is not conducive to a healthy retirement. It’s one thing to be financially secure, but if you have no one to enjoy your life with, your retirement is likely to be extremely difficult. For those over 75, it’s been suggested that maintaining good social connections, undertaking regular exercise and avoiding harmful habits such as smoking can add an extra five years of life. Among geriatricians it is believed severe loneliness for the elderly is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to Age UK, more than two million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than a million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.

For Dr. Samir, the longevity dividend links three factors: health, wealth and social connections as a starting point in working with his older patients to find solutions.

Pioneering pension schemes

Traditionally pension schemes have provided little else to their members beyond investment management. Yet granting an organisation permission to manage a pension naturally comes with an inbuilt degree of trust. Many pension schemes are wary of the difference between ‘advice’ and ‘guidance’, so are reluctant to provide anything beyond monetary matters. Pension funds are often trusted by members and there is an opportunity to engage with members looking beyond current strict definitions and build on their strong relationships to promote healthy retirements.

Bermuda Triangle of aging

When thinking about the question, ‘what is the key to a long and happy life?’, the answer perhaps is that there is no answer. Every person is different, so the balance between health, wealth and social factors will require a level of bespoke fine tuning and focus for each individual. Dr. Samir has called this the ‘Bermuda Triangle of Aging’ and believes the three are connected; If you have no money, you can’t afford to visit friends or to get out and about. If you can’t walk you are stuck at home even if you have money.

A greater understanding and appreciation of the interconnecting factors that make up the longevity dividend and the organisations that can effect change will be a good starting point.

To watch Dr. Samir Sinha’s discussion of health and wealth, please visit Pioneering Pensions.