The Aging Brain

Course No. 1633
Professor Thad A. Polk, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
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Course No. 1633
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn how fluid processing skills-such as episodic and working memory-tend to decline over time.
  • Discover what scientific research shows about our evolving emotional landscape, and why older people tend to be happier than the young.
  • Explore the long-term brain benefits of eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Course Overview

We’re all getting older every day, and scientific research has shown that starting in our twenties, some brain functions begin a linear decline. Even if we avoid diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, parts of the brain inevitably shrink, replicating cells become damaged, and fluid processing skills such as multitasking and episodic memory worsen. But is old age all doom and gloom? Are we destined for senescence once we’re barely out of adolescence?

Not at all! While it’s true that some functions in the aging brain decline, neuroscientists have discovered that many other brain functions remain stable—or even improve—as we age. Furthermore, nurture plays as significant a role as nature, and there are a number of strategies you can implement to stave off declining brain function, including:

  • Incorporating physical activity into your routine
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Maintaining a vibrant social life
  • Reducing your stress

The science behind the aging brain tells a fascinating—and often counterintuitive—story. Is “aging” a disease, or merely a natural occurrence that produces disease-like symptoms? If humans are biologically programmed to survive and thrive, why do we age at all? Is it possible (or even desirable) to “cure” aging altogether? Delve into these questions and more in The Aging Brain. Taught by Professor Thad Polk, a neuroscientist and award-winning professor at the University of Michigan, these twelve eye-opening lectures will give you a wealth of new insights into what happens to the brain over time—as well as strategies to mitigate the effects of aging and enhance your quality of life into old age.

With a mix of scientific research and practical applications, Professor Polk brings cutting-edge science to life. He takes you down to the cellular and even molecular level of the brain to show you why certain functions decline, how some aspects of brain aging are under genetic control, and what you can do to prolong your health and keep your mind sharp. Aging affects us all, but as you will learn in The Aging Brain, you have some control over how it affects you.

Explore the Science of Aging

Professor Polk is a practicing researcher in the field of neuroscience, and he brings his experience and knowledge into this course to give you a rigorous introduction to the science of aging. Without shying away from the complexity, he provides a lucid explanation of everything from physiology to genetics to stem cell research. Among other topics, you will study:

  • The biology of aging: Much of the physical decline in aging derives from the basic mechanisms underlying metabolism, from molecules called free radicals that steal electrons from other molecules, and from accumulating damage to DNA. Learn about these mechanisms and what may help combat them.
  • Changes to the brain: With the advent of new imaging techniques, it is now possible to study brain structure as well as brain activity while subjects perform various tasks. Such studies have revealed that changes in the brain can actually shed light on why some cognitive functions decline with age, while others don’t. Explore this fascinating field and gain new insight into how your brain can reorganize itself to help you age more gracefully.
  • Diseases and conditions: Dementia, depression, stroke, and other conditions are notorious dangers as we age. Find out what causes brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, learn how they are treated, and consider the role of nature versus nurture in preventing them.
  • Future therapies: Is it possible to prevent aging altogether? Take a look into the future to predict what results we might one day see from gene therapy and stem cell research. Consider the risks of such possibilities, both to our bodies and to society.

Learn How to Keep Your Mind Healthy

Growing older may be inevitable, but there is much we can do to fight senescence. By studying communities where people tend to live exceptionally long lives, using brain scanning technologies such as fMRIs, and conducting longitudinal studies of the population, researchers have uncovered a wealth of information about staying healthy and keeping the mind sharp.

  • Memory: There are better ways to learn and retain information than rote memorization. Professor Polk shows you how to build a memory house and how to employ visual and spatial thinking as well as deep processing in order to improve your memory.
  • Physical Activity: Everyone knows that exercise can help keep your body fit, but scientific studies are now revealing that it can also substantially improve your cognitive functioning—while reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other brain disorders.
  • Diet: The Mediterranean diet and other diets that include plenty of fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains have been shown to improve cognitive well-being. In fact, the results from one research study were so dramatic that the study had to be cancelled mid-way through, as it was deemed unethical to keep the control group on a diet of processed foods.
  • Socialization: Humans are social creatures, and we need a sense of purpose. There is a strong correlation between communities with strong social bonds and longer lifespans.

In other words, stay active, eat well, and build a deep social network. This is great advice for people of all ages, but it’s even more important as you get older. With what you learn from The Aging Brain, you can face the challenges of aging with comprehension and confidence, armed with knowledge to help you live a longer, healthier, and more enjoyable life.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    The Aging Mind: What Changes?
    Aging affects us all, and it’s important to know how our cognitive functions change over our lives. The course opens with an examination of how fluid processing skills—such as episodic and working memory—tend to decline over time, whereas crystallized intelligence (how-to skills and accumulated knowledge) remains stable or even improves. x
  • 2
    Why Don’t We Live Forever?
    Take a look at how our genes influence the aging process. Professor Polk explores several theories for why we age and eventually die, then delves into the genetic mechanisms involved in aging. Find out how replication damages cells and why there is a limit to the number of healthy replications our cells can make. x
  • 3
    Is Aging a Disease?
    Scientists debate whether aging is actually a disease, but the effects of aging indisputably resemble the symptoms of a disease. Here, examine three major mechanisms behind these effects: energy consumption, free radicals, and damage to our DNA. Then consider whether there could be a way to “cure” these effects. x
  • 4
    Aging and Brain Structure
    See how the cognitive changes of aging relate to the biological changes discussed in the previous lectures. It turns out that regions of the brain associated with processing speed, executive function, and episodic memory are more susceptible to aging, which may explain why these cognitive functions are particularly susceptible to decline. Tour the anatomy of the brain and see age-related differences in action. x
  • 5
    Aging and Brain Function
    Turn from the brain’s structure to its activity. After reviewing how we study brain function via fMRI, Professor Polk shows you how brain activity changes as we age—and how these changes impact our memory, our ability to multitask, and more. Then, learn some good news about how the brain compensates for these changes. x
  • 6
    Emotional Aging
    Many studies agree that people older than 65 typically experience a greater sense of emotional well-being than younger people. See what scientific research shows about our evolving emotional landscape, and why older people tend to be happier than the young. Depression can still be a problem for older adults, though—consider the most common causes, discover how symptoms may differ from those of younger people, and learn to match the treatment to the situation. x
  • 7
    Strategies for an Aging Memory
    How does memory work? Can aspects of it be improved? This eye-opening lecture offers a test of two different strategies for memorization: sheer repetition on the one hand, and visual-spatial storytelling on the other. Once you understand how memory works, you’ll investigate four key principles that you can apply to improve your own memory. x
  • 8
    Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease
    Find out what medical scientists mean by “dementia,” which results from disease and is not a normal part of healthy aging. The most prominent disease that causes dementia is Alzheimer’s, so Professor Polk walks you through its history, symptoms, and palliative treatments, as well as the current state of Alzheimer’s research. x
  • 9
    Parkinson’s Disease and Stroke
    Continue your study of age-related brain diseases with an investigation of Parkinson’s disease and stroke. What are they? How do they affect a person’s behavior? And can they be treated? Examinations of these questions and more take you through neurochemistry, stem cell research, and strategies you can use to reduce your risk. x
  • 10
    Aging Well: Staying Active
    Get ready for good news to help stave off mental decline! Here, you’ll analyze the effects of physical, social, and mental activity on the aging brain. Ample evidence from communities with longer-than-average lifespans shows that getting plenty of exercise and maintaining a vibrant social life can help keep the mind sharp and the spirit young. x
  • 11
    Aging Well: Diet and Stress
    Shift your attention from the effects of physical and social activity to the impact of diet and stress. Explore the benefits of eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids and low in processed foods—like the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets. Then, delve into the physiological effects of stress, trace the damage it creates throughout the body, and learn how to reduce stress to increase longevity. x
  • 12
    The Science of Immortality
    Is it possible to live forever? Would we even want to? Conclude the course with a look at cutting-edge research involving gene therapy and stem cells that may help us mitigate or even “cure” the effects of aging. The science is still emerging, but the possibilities are fascinating. x

Lecture Titles

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What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Video Download Includes:
  • Download 12 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
Audio Download Includes:
  • Download 12 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
Video DVD
DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 126-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
  • Closed captioning available

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 126-page printed course guidebook
  • Charts & photographs
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Thad A. Polk

About Your Professor

Thad A. Polk, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
Professor Thad A. Polk is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan. He received a B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Virginia and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Computer Science and Psychology from Carnegie Mellon University. He also received postdoctoral training in cognitive neuroscience at the...
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The Aging Brain is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 164.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I am a Family Physician, so, I have to admit, this course is a little more for a novice. I learned a few things, but just a few. I listened to it on a long car ride with my 86 year old father, who is a living example of slow processing. It went right over his head. But I have since started The Addicted Brain by the same professor, Thad A. Polk. He is a good speaker.
Date published: 2018-04-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Polk is an outstanding Teacher. I purchased The Aging Brain,and the addicted Brian taught by Professor Polk, and I have learned a great deal of information on how the Brian works. When I began looking at the work that Wheeler Mission does in Bloomington, IN to help the poor and homeless people with Drug problem, I am wanted to how they are able to save these people from the addictions that they have and help them to be responsible citizens after the training at Camp Hunt, the Wheeler Mission site. I think Professor Polk's training will help me how to understand what is needed to work with Wheeler Mission , and support their Program.
Date published: 2018-04-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Best Great Courses!! This course is excellent!! So factual and interesting. Professor Polk is outstanding; he is easy to understand and makes the course easy to follow. His voice is great for presenting a course.
Date published: 2018-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Valuable Information, Thought Provoking I've been talking to many friends about what I learned from this course. Our brains start aging after 20. Knowing what will change and seeing the biological basis for it helps to accept the process. There is also great information on how to age well and on what gets better as we age. Thank you!
Date published: 2018-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Credible and Useful Info. -- We ALL Will Age! Excellent! Well presented and informative! This course presents quality information for ordinary folks. This is information that one can TRUST -- not sneaky sales misinformation as is so commonly masked on mass media and marketing publications as 'miracle' remedies, etc. The course gives perspective for anyone who feels time growing short. Also, we all know, and love, aging family and friends. This course will help one to empathize with them. Be patient with the first part, it provides important foundational information that gives needed insight to practical examples of memory and other brain-related situations in the elderly.
Date published: 2018-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Aging Brain This course is excellent for adults of all ages. It gives younger adults valuable information on their future brain and it gives older adults insight on what they or their loved one may be experiencing. The lecturer is engaging and presents the material in a very understandable manner.
Date published: 2018-03-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative I am glad I have been watching these lectures. It helps to know what is going on in my brain as I age and what I can do to slow the process. I am glad I purchased the DVD because the pictures and charts add to the lecture. I have been reading the book after each lecture I watch to cement the knowledge. I have been sharing what I learn with other people.
Date published: 2018-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Lecture Series A college level course presented in an interesting format based on the professor's and other's scientific research. I would recommend this to anyone who works in health care.
Date published: 2018-02-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Aging Brain The Professor Polk is a excellent presenter. The use of graphics,animation,and even historical trivia( lecture 12: Freud and Byron), to help explain and illustrate,, what could be a very technically difficult subject, is not only educational, but entertaining as well. He not only reviews the GOOD NEWS from ongoing research on the Brain, but he also presents the BAD NEWS as well. I feel that I have learned a great deal about THE AGING BRAIN, and am glad I purchased this course.
Date published: 2018-02-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview of the field The presenter gives a comprehensive summary of the major changes in the brain with age. The content is clearly organized, and presented in a manner that holds one's attention well. One of the best of the Great Courses in my experience.
Date published: 2018-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative! I really enjoyed this course, as it was the right length, and it was easy to understand. It opened your eyes on what you can do to live a more satisfying life. We have the leverage for better lives.
Date published: 2018-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superior Course Cogent and Informative. Includes a discussion of the symptoms and underlying causes of age related brain performance decline and, most importantly, what can be done to avoid or minimize their effects.
Date published: 2018-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The aging brain It was eye opening and illuminating to learn how the brain works and changes as we go through life. The course well communicated and I enjoyed it very much.
Date published: 2018-01-27
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Second DVD didn't work The presenter did a good job in each segment of the first DVD ... but the second DVD couldn't be read and so I have returned it to you.
Date published: 2018-01-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from My husband has Parkinson's Disease and this gave me insight into the disease. Wish there was more information on symptoms and progression, but got helpful information that is making my life easier.
Date published: 2018-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from So much to understand! I am almost finished this course and have found it very informative and interesting. The examples are easily understood and make the content clear even for someone who has no prior knowledge of the subject.
Date published: 2018-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gem of a little course I just finished watching this course and highly recommend it. While it is a short course, which I normally would consider a disadvantage because of the lack of time to cover topics, I viewed this course as a supplement to several other courses that TGC offers on the brain. There are other courses that delve more into the anatomy of the brain or optimizing brain fitness. This course is as a states, primarily dealing with the aging brain. I found that the course started off on an "average" tone. Professor Polk seemed a bit mechanical and academic, quoting lots of names/studies. I learned some good information from the first six lectures, but I feel like the best part of the course was definitely the second half. I feel like the course is worth its money for the lecture on the strategies for an aging memory. Likewise, the lectures on dementia and Parkinson's were very interesting and the professor seemed more engaging with the camera and in his comfort zone. The lectures on staying active and diet/stress were also really good. The information was presented in an extremely accessible fashion and I think this course would work well as audio only. ( I watched it on DVD.)
Date published: 2018-01-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good tor anticipating aging This is a very good preview of what an aging person (of any age) can anticipate as time goes by.
Date published: 2017-11-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not what I expected About 30% of this course was interesting, the rest was just very boring; of course thats just my opinion, other people may feel differently.
Date published: 2017-11-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course Like the presenter, well researched, latest information.
Date published: 2017-10-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Clearly explains the issues. My wife and I are both pleased with the content of this course.
Date published: 2017-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Meaningful Topics I waited to review this course until I had completed watching it. Now I can say with certainty that Professor Polk's presentation, his material and his personality are top notch. I've purchased other Great Courses on various aspects of the brain and this ranks right up there with the most informative and enjoyable. For those of us "of a certain age" the information learned here is especially enlightening and helpful. because It helps to sort out what symptoms might be of concern and which ones really are not. Furthermore, Professor Polk tells us about practices and exercises that could prevent or at least delay certain changes as we age. Along the way he answers interesting queries like "Why don't we live forever" and addresses specific age-related diseases that affect the brain like stroke, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. There's something here for everyone because we're all aging whether we like it of not. Knowledge is our best weapon.
Date published: 2017-10-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehensive on Aging Brain! As my family age and health issues complicate the aging brain, this course gave me real insights as to what is happening with science-based research. For younger people, good strategies for staying sharp.
Date published: 2017-09-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Aging Brain I'm 81 and this is one of the most important courses, of the many, that I have purchased from you. I am impressed with the instructor and the content. Thank you. Dixie L Green
Date published: 2017-09-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good Overview I bought the audio version a few weeks ago and listen to it on my iPad in the car with the GreatCourses app. The app is fabulous, easy to use and can be streamed or downloaded to go. It provided scientific confirmation of what I already knew about the benefits of exercise, eating right and positive social interactions. It touched briefly on the subject of 'brain exercises', and at least provides some evidence that exercises targeting processing speed, memory and executive functions are helpful. Some discussion on hearing and auditory processing would have been helpful (I listened to this over bluetooth to my hearing aids, as I am VERY hard of hearing). Fortunately the pace and tone of the speaker was very easy for me to pay attention to, even with the background road noise and given my auditory processing and hearing issues.
Date published: 2017-09-22
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Didn't love it Clearly read and presented but not at all what I was looking forward to. Mostly it concerned discussions of basic biology and research, and there were endless discussions of experiments. “In 1992, a study conducted by Profs. Wesley Jimenez and Elizabeth Sprot of the University of Copenhagen, who are now at Berkeley …”, etc etc. Who cares? Tell me what I’m here to learn about, which is what’s known about age and the brain, and what a person can do about it. I could really care less about the design and attribution of experiments. I made it thru maybe five lectures, got nearly nothing out of them, and returned it.
Date published: 2017-09-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Courses is a resource that continues my learning process even at the age of 73. The Aging Brain gives great insight into the biological changes and how those changes affect both memory and behavior. The professor provides concise and understandable explanations that are so pertinent. Enjoyed this course as well as the many others that I have purchased.
Date published: 2017-09-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent descriptor of the course I purchased this DVD set to see if it would be a good vehicle to teach the lay-person about the human brain and the issues of aging. The course does a good job of progressing through the physical aspects of the brain and how it changes with age. The discussion of the various aging related brain illnesses and disabilities and some fact based strategies that possibly delay them were useful. In all I found it informative and worth the investment. Professor Polk did a great job and was easy to listen to during the videos. I am the CEO of the Aging Life Care Association and found it to be a good tool to use to help families and individuals better understand the fundamental underlying issues of the aging brain. Bought it on sale and it was a deal - in my opinion.
Date published: 2017-08-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from the aging brain very detailed, informative program,presented in an engaging manner. Of the many courses I've participated in, this is the best.
Date published: 2017-08-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Action Plan to Maintain Aging Brain Functionality Great information on how our brains age and life-style changes we can make to mitigate fading brain function. The chapter on dementia and stroke was particularly informing. Though no current cure exists for Alzheimers , we can take steps to help avoid it as we age.
Date published: 2017-08-07
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