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
Instant Video 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
Instant Audio 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 189.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from If Your are Worried about Aging, Watch this Course This course is both informative and entertaining (kudos to the Great Courses for the occasional visual effects such as the giant rat. That certainly grabbed my attention and left me laughing). The course gives a broad overview of how we both decline and improve with age, what can go wrong, what we can do to slow the decline and minimize the dangers, and where research into aging is going. Recommended!
Date published: 2019-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very accurate and up to date I've done presentations to the Alzheimer's Association, and Dr. Polk has accurately summarized and referenced the latest developments in understanding what happens as we age. I was pleased that he was able to shed a balanced light on many of the current fads. A very worthwhile course.
Date published: 2019-09-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Explanation: Normal aging vs Diseased aging Alleviated concern that forgetfulness was a sign of a diseased brain. Improved understanding of how normal aging affects you and provides information of life style actions which will reduce aging affects.
Date published: 2019-08-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Everyone with a Brain Needs This Excellent. Highly relevant! Research based. Great lecturer.
Date published: 2019-08-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative I liked this course. I learned some new things although in the end it's still diet and exercise that's the best preventative which is what we all can pretty much guess. It's good to know that their is interesting research going on.
Date published: 2019-08-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from What? Suduko doesn't help? Dr Polk presents, here, a series of twelve lectures that serve as a survey course about the effects of aging inasmuch as the brain is concerned. His lecture style is clear, with a pleasing cadence and voice with occasional humor (I particularly like the incident about writing a piece about nutrition while having a pastry in what I gather was a Starbucks). I stress that these lectures are a survey course since other reviewers voiced disappointment in there not being more detail...the ten page bibliography in the guidebook gives the interested student plenty (bunches?) of opportunities to follow-up on any points introduced in the lecture. It is not surprising that the best defense against mental deterioration, aka aging brain, is good nutrition, regular exercise and minimizing stress. For my part, I try not to worry about my diet while I'm out on my 5 mile walk, listening to lectures... As my title suggests, I was somewhat disappointed that completing puzzles (Sudoku, crossword and jumble-like daily newspaper offerings) do not help sustain or improve mental acuity....I've been fooling myself for all those years....arrrgggg. I will continue to work at those, however, since it has become part of my routine...and one must not disrupt one's routine (is that yet another symptom of an aging brain?) Dr Polk has done a great job...I recommend the audio version, with a follow-up reading of the guidebook (the videos allow too much sedentary time). And, of course, watch for sales and those half-off coupons.
Date published: 2019-08-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well explained While I am not yet done with the course, have been enjoying every minute of it. Interesting topic well presented.
Date published: 2019-08-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding! Two days after ordering this DVD I suffered a stroke. It could not have been more timely. The subject matter dealt with this issue clearly and the presentation was easy to follow.
Date published: 2019-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The aging brain My wife and I both enjoyed the lectures. Very informative.
Date published: 2019-07-28
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Aging brain Actually quite superficial,given all the current research. I was disappointed.
Date published: 2019-07-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Not to repeat the title but but this is a really great course. And also practical so I have ideas to move forward.
Date published: 2019-06-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Comprehensive Several of first lectures deal with other than brain issues. Perhaps better title would be Aging Mind and Brain(brain being substrate of mind)
Date published: 2019-06-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Like others that I have purchased, there is much of value, much to learn and ponder
Date published: 2019-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great learning experience! I took this course because I knew little about the subject matter in which I was very much interested. Both content and delivery were excellent! The last quarter of the course were especially useful and encouraging. I highly recommend the course.
Date published: 2019-05-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Aging Brain Wide range of material material - Outstanding presentation
Date published: 2019-05-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course, I did enjoyed I bought this course few weeks ago, I almost Finished half, great course, good Speaker and good knowledge. I did enjoyed a lot and will continue to review more often
Date published: 2019-05-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Aging Brain I received this Aging Brain Course from my nephew. I am 81 years old and very interested in this topic.. Wonderful that I can watch & listen to this at any time at home
Date published: 2019-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Explains what I needed to know I am a seventy year old man who has enjoyed working and contributing. Over the last few years some aspects of this have become more difficult. Specifically my ability to suppress noise and distractions has presented a challenge. Now I know why this is happening and that it is not unusual.
Date published: 2019-03-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting information about how the brain works I found this lecture to be useful and very informational.
Date published: 2019-02-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from have started on course and pleased so far. speaker is excellent. learning great
Date published: 2019-02-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative I bought this course to learn about the brain and the effects of aging. I am 64 and found the course very informative. I had no prior research on the subject so I cannot compare the information with other studies. The information presented here sounded viable and provided me with good information that helped me understand the obvious changes my brain has gone through over the years and things I can do to improve my brain function. Some of the suggestions are ideas I have already included in my routine, such as exercise and challenging my mind with courses such as are offered with the Great Courses. Being retired, I now have the time to study topics I have never tried. I have already taken the course in learning Egyptian Hieroglyphs and I would one day maybe study the Latin course. My only complaint with the course is that the dvd froze during one of the lectures. I tried several times and with a different player but had the same problem. I finally had to finish the lecture on the computer streaming option.
Date published: 2019-02-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting & Informative For example, did you know that lobsters can theoretically live forever?
Date published: 2019-02-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just at the perfect technical level We are half way through this course and my husband and I are really enjoying it! The narrator speaks clearly and I whenever he comes across a new phrase he explains it very well, often using very clear analogies. Just when I raise a question about something he's said, he answers it with the next sentence!!
Date published: 2019-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Aging Brain Well timed. Involved in other course work in my leisure time. Interesting.
Date published: 2019-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absorbing, interesting. I've only watched the 2nd lecture so far but am looking forward to all the others.
Date published: 2019-01-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best!! The material is timely and appropriate, and the presentation is excellent. As an 82 year old physician the course answers my concerns.
Date published: 2019-01-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Nice overview of effect of aging on the human brai The professor has a great presentation stylr and provides a good introduction to the topic. Since the human brain is the topic of extensive research this is a subject that gets outdated fairly rapidly. Given that, the lecturer does concerntate on the more general aspects, but does make reference to “current” research. As such he generates a great deal of interest for tge learner to further explore the topic.
Date published: 2018-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great explanations Covers a lot of territory and examples of scientific studies.
Date published: 2018-12-18
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lecture misleading I bought this lecture believing it was as advertised - a course on how the brain ages and what to expect when it happens. This course does cover those topics but only briefly. The majority of the course concerns brain science as a whole and not focused on aging, This is all very interesting, but again, are only covered briefly. And the advice given to stop the decline of mental capacity are basic - advising the listener to do such things as eat better, socialize more and read, stuff I could figure out myself. This lecture series was good enough as a preamble to a deeper understanding of the brain only, and not a course I would recommend to many people.
Date published: 2018-12-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very good overview of the subject Having had a longstanding interest in all things “the brain”, I found this course to be very good in summarizing current knowledge on our master organ. This course would be of great benefit for individuals who do not know very much about the brain, specifically the aging brain. Professor Polk Presented the material very well and the lectures were well organized and sequenced. A very good basic overview of the topic.
Date published: 2018-11-16
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