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Retirement: A chance to share gratitude, advice, regrets from my time at NIA

John HAAGA [Former NIA Staff],
Division of Behavioral and Social Research (DBSR).

Years ago, when my oldest child was getting ready to leave for college, I was enjoying some family time with him and his two younger siblings, and wistfully said, “There are so many things I should have told you and so much good advice I would have given you, but now you’re leaving and I won’t have the chance.” To our surprise, our youngest piped up, “Yeah, me too!”

Now I’m about to retire from federal service, and fortunately my friends who manage this blog gave me a chance to offer some appreciation and advice while I’m still “Inside NIA.”

First, thanks to all of you for your essential contributions that make the NIH system work. Throughout my service, it has been deeply gratifying to see the care, thought and time that researchers provide, helping us to review applications, serving on advisory committees including the NIA council, and participating in workshops that we or the National Academies organized to inform our work. We all learned a lot from these discussions.

Next, I must express my appreciation for your research. Demographers have predicted the aging of the population quite accurately since the 1930s. We are now right in the middle of the big run-up of the oldest-old population — those in their 80s and 90s — to whom my predecessor Richard Suzman called the attention of researchers and policy makers.

Our readiness for aging, both as families and as a society, is due in large part to the contributions of researchers in the behavioral and social sciences who have done so much to overturn stereotypes and point out opportunities. An earlier director of DBSR, Matilda White Riley, developed the concept of “structural lag,” the tendency of institutions and policies developed under one demographic regime to persist into a changed situation to which they are no longer well adapted. We urgently need to reduce this lag to adapt to a new society, with more retirees, older workers, older taxpayers, older patients….older everyone.

Some advice: Please connect with your program officers — you might check some of my earlier posts for ideas on how to do that efficiently! They are public servants who are here to serve. Also, please consider public service at NIH as part of your own scientific career. NIH, and NIA in particular, is comprised of a great group of people using their training and experience to advance an important mission: “Turning discovery into health.”

One regret: In recent years in the U.S., our discoveries are too often not bringing broader, better health. During my 16 years at NIA, U.S. life expectancy at birth improved by just one year and life expectancy at age 65 improved by a shade more than one year. In 2004, the U.S. tied on both measures with Portugal, a much poorer country, yet Portugal has gained more than four years of life expectancy since.

“Life expectancy” is a sort of average of death rates at all ages; the extra time is not tacked on at the end like injury time in soccer. If we could only keep up with Portugal (and Korea, Slovenia, Chile, the United Kingdom, etc.), Americans would have lower mortality rates — better health — at every age. For Americans without college degrees, members of racial minorities, and those living in Appalachia and nonmetropolitan areas, the score is even worse. We know something of the reasons, and something about what to do, but we need both to learn more and to act on what we already know.

As I say farewell, I now get to participate more intensively in many of the roles I have been reading about in NIA-funded research: grandparenting, working in “bridge jobs,” civic engagement and volunteering. I feel very lucky to have worked at NIA and with so many of you. Best wishes to all for a happy holiday season, and thank you again for the many good memories!

Stay tuned for an early 2020 blog from Dr. Haaga's successor.


Submitted by Kyriakos Markides on December 18, 2019

Many thanks John for all that you have done for so many people and for our field. Happy retirement.

Submitted by Shripad Tuljapurkar on December 18, 2019

You've got to be too young to retire! Pleasure having known you, best wishes for the next phase.


Submitted by Eric Larson on December 18, 2019

John - many thanks for your contributions and especially these words in your farewell blog - - We need to pay attention to these unfortunate trends in the US

Submitted by Jennifer Manly on December 18, 2019

John, the research community is lucky to have benefited from your leadership - specifically, thank you for prioritizing disparities in aging within BSR. You are leaving an impressive legacy, and I wish you a satisfying retirement with plenty of time for friends and family.


Submitted by Rachel Pruchno on December 19, 2019

Thanks for your support and candid thoughts over the years. You will be missed!

Submitted by Nancy on December 19, 2019

John - Thanks for your leadership and strategic contributions to the Health Economics Common Fund. I appreciated your calm demeanor and thoughtful consideration about issue on the table.
Enjoy your new adventure and keep in mind how lucky you are.

Submitted by Pat Kobor on December 20, 2019

Thanks John for your kindness, humor, and great expertise. We will miss you! All the best!