Gerontologist or Geriatrician – What’s the Difference?


The population of the elderly in the United States is growing at a remarkable pace. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that by 2050, at least one in every five Americans will be over the age of 65. By that point, the current baby boomers will be over the age of 85. With advances in healthcare, it’s expected that many Americans will live well into their golden years.

As a population, we really are living longer. In 1860, the average American only lived to the age of 39 or so – it’s hard to believe that our ancestors died so young, especially considering that today, the average life expectancy is about 79 years[1]. As our elderly population grows, so do the potential health problems faced by seniors as they age.

According to the National Council on Aging, nearly 95% of seniors have at least one chronic health condition, and 80% have at least two or more. Some of these conditions, like high cholesterol, might be managed through diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. But many others require medications. In fact, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 89% of adults over the age of 65 take at least one prescription drug, and some seniors take numerous prescription medications – enough that they might want to use a medication reminder and pill organizer and dispenser to keep track of them all.

That’s why there are growing sectors of the medical field that focus solely on seniors and elderly adults and their age-related needs. When you begin looking for a medical provider who knows how to handle all the conditions, prescriptions, and potential illnesses or diseases you might face as you get older, you’ll probably come across many different specialists. You might often see “gerontologist” or “geriatrician” as options in health and insurance plans. Though many people use these terms interchangeably, they are two different professions with different backgrounds and qualifications.

What is Gerontology?

Gerontology focuses on the study of older adults and aging. Gerontologists are primarily researchers who look into a variety of fields that affect the elderly, including social sciences, psychology, public health and policy, physiology, and more. They look at the societal changes that affect the elderly, as well as how the growing numbers of the senior population affect society as a whole. They investigate the physical processes that happen to the body as we age. And they use the results of their investigations and research to create or improve policies and programs for the elderly.

How do those investigations affect society and seniors in particular? Look to Medicare and Social Security as two examples of programs designed for the elderly that took into account the unique medical needs of those of advanced age. And in addition to those clear examples, consider that the growth of assisted living facilities and skilled nursing facilities was driven by recognition of the unique needs of seniors to have more support during the aging process.

While gerontologists are primarily on the research side of the medical field, some of them might actually treat patients. For instance, a gerontologist who was originally trained as a psychologist might be able to guide a patient through mental health treatment or therapies[2]. Treating patients can be rare, however, as a gerontologist doesn’t have to be a medical doctor – they come from all disciplines of study, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and more[3]. Gerontologists are more likely to be found working in administration or policy positions at the community or government level.

What is Geriatrics?

Geriatricians are medical professionals who focus on the unique needs, care, and treatment of the elderly. They are licensed physicians, either MDs or DOs, who are board-certified in either internal medicine or family medicine, according to the American Geriatrics Society.

Geriatrics is a subset of gerontology, as it takes a closer view at the individual rather than the population as a whole. Doctors who focus only on the elderly can become very well-versed in the diseases they face and the medications necessary to treat those conditions. Geriatricians manage health conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, arthritis, dementia, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and more. They also don’t hesitate to pull in other healthcare professionals to round out the treatment a patient might need.

Geriatricians might be in private practice, but they are also found in outpatient clinics, skilled nursing facilities, and hospitals. If you are meeting with a physician who is specially trained to handle the needs of the elderly, it’s probably a geriatrician.

Other Specialists You Might Need

In addition to your geriatrician or primary care physician, you might have other healthcare professionals on your team. This is especially true if you have chronic conditions, such as some forms of heart disease or diabetes. These additional medical professionals may include:

·         Dietitian. These healthcare providers assess your diet and nutritional needs and then create goals to get you healthier. They might tailor diets for those who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and more.

·         Endocrinologist. The field of endocrinology is related to the hormones produced and needed by the body. An endocrinologist can work with you to figure out how to handle chronic conditions that include hormone changes, such as diabetes or thyroid issues.

·         Podiatrist. A podiatrist is a doctor who specializes in the care of your feet. This can be vitally important for those with diabetes, as they might suffer from nerve damage in the feet or wounds that are slow to heal. Podiatrists can also spot the problems that could lead to falls and give you potential ways to correct them. Any senior under the care of a podiatrist should consider using a medical alert system with fall detection.

·         Physical therapist. As our bodies change and those aches and pains become more pronounced, a physical therapist can be a wonderful addition to a healthcare team. They can help you learn how to move in ways that are easier on your body. For instance, they can instruct you on ways to alleviate the pain of arthritis or help you gain strength and function after you’ve suffered an injury or had a fall.

·         Occupational therapist. The job of an occupational therapist is to make your day-to-day life easier. That means they will teach you how to improve your skills for daily living or recover them after a significant event that affects your ability to move, such as a stroke. If you are recovering from a fall, suffer memory problems, or need to learn how to use adaptations for the home that allow you to age in place, an occupational therapist can provide incredibly valuable services.

·         Neurologist. These highly-trained professionals focus on the nervous system and the brain, which make them a first line of advice on dementia and Alzheimer’s. They often work closely with geriatricians to provide the best care possible for those who are suffering from memory or cognitive issues.

·         Cardiologist. These physicians focus on the cardiovascular system and can become part of your team if you suffer from heart disease or respiratory illnesses that affect your quality of life. If you suffer a heart attack, for instance, a cardiologist is often called to help you as you recover. Anyone who has had a cardiac event should consider a medical alert for seniors which is compatible with pacemakers, such as those from Alert1.

·         Respiratory therapist. These professionals focus on how well you can breathe. They can design treatment plans for those who have suffered damage from pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and much more. They often work closely with cardiologists.

·         Pharmacist. Though a pharmacist doesn’t treat you directly, they work closely with all of your medical providers to ensure that you are on the proper medications and that there are no interactions in the drugs you are taking. As we get older and those bottles of prescriptions begin to add up, the services of a good pharmacist become even more valuable.

·         Nurse or nurse practitioner. Like the doctors they work with, these individuals are trained to handle the unique problems of the elderly. They are often full of good advice and can provide you with excellent care under the supervision of a physician.

In addition to medical professionals, others might join your healthcare team, including counselors for mental health issues, geriatric care managers, or social workers to help ensure you are getting the appropriate care and follow-up. There could be others as well, depending upon your unique situation.

An aging in place specialist is also an option to add to your healthcare team, though their work is more about making your home suitable for long-term living. These specialists can look at your home to determine where hazards might be lurking, and can consult with your doctor about your fall risk and help develop ways to mitigate it. While modifying and adapting your home is a great idea, a medical alert pendant provides an extra layer of protection. When you choose a medical alert system with fall detection, the device itself can automatically send an alert for help if it detects that a fall has taken place.

If you do decide to see a geriatrician, it is a great idea to bring up the topic of aging in place. In addition to affordable medical alert technology, your doctor could have some helpful and unique options in mind that will ensure you stay as safe as possible while you enjoy the comfort of living in your own home for many years to come.