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What Is a Geriatric Doctor?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

Geriatric doctors, also called geriatricians, specialize in caring for aging adults who often have complex medical issues. They focus particularly on keeping you functional and helping you maintain your quality of life. Geriatric doctors understand caregivers’ roles and work with family members, too.

The US faces a shortage of geriatric doctors for a growing older adult population. According to the American Geriatrics Society, we need roughly 20,000 geriatric doctors to meet older adults’ needs. But right now we have less than 7,300 certified geriatricians.

What Does a Geriatric Doctor Do?

Geriatric doctors diagnose and treat issues that affect older adults. Their patients often have one or more chronic health issues. The National Council on Aging reports that 80% of older adults have at least one chronic disease, and 68% have at least two. 

While a geriatrician will generally manage your overall care, they also work with others on your health care team, such as:

Older people are often on several medications for different ailments. For this reason, geriatric doctors are highly knowledgeable about drug side effects and interactions.

Education and Training

Geriatricians complete medical school and a residency in addition to gaining a medical license and becoming board certified.

The steps to becoming a geriatric doctor include:

  • Finish four years of medical school
  • Complete three to five years in a full-time residency training program
  • Obtain an unrestricted medical license to practice in the US and Canada
  • Pass an exam created by a member board of the American Board of Medical Specialties

What Conditions Does a Geriatric Doctor Treat?

Geriatric doctors have expertise in many of the age-related conditions and illnesses that older adults face. Conditions geriatricians commonly treat include:

Fall injuries

Aging people often develop balance and mobility problems. As such, geriatric doctors treat a lot of falls. Three out of 10 people over the age of 70 fall each year, and 90% of broken hips in people over 70 result from falls. Fortunately, there are ways geriatric doctors can help lessen your risk of falling.

All physicians seeing older patients should perform a fall assessment. This tool helps geriatric doctors discover and address your fall risk factors, which can include medications you take and conditions such as:

Dementia

Dementia is a term describing several brain diseases that come with memory loss severe enough to disrupt your daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60% to 80% of dementia cases.

Geriatric doctors are experts at diagnosing the causes of dementia. Using a combination of memory, ability, and mood tests along with blood work and brain scans, geriatric doctors can offer treatment options and help you (and your caregivers) plan for the future.

Incontinence

Urinary incontinence (involuntary peeing) is a common problem among older adults. It’s also one they don’t always want to tell their doctor about. This may be due to embarrassment or the belief that it’s a normal part of aging.

Geriatric doctors are familiar with treating this condition. They can use assistive devices, urination schedules, exercises, biofeedback, and more. Medications and surgeries are also an option.

Depression

Studies have found that 29% to 52% of older adults in nursing homes are depressed. Older people are less likely to have depression if they still live in their communities, where the rate is more like 1% to 5%.

Geriatricians are trained to assess their patients’ moods. Depression in older people doesn’t always look the same as depression in younger adults. Its symptoms often appear to result from other medical conditions. For example, dizziness or shortness of breath can be a sign of depression in an older patient, but could easily be mistaken for heart disease.

Cardiovascular disease

Geriatric doctors see many people with cardiovascular disease or who have already experienced a stroke or heart attack.

Doctors must make treatment decisions carefully, especially if you’re already taking a lot of medications or have other complicating medical problems. The geriatrician must weigh the drawbacks of treatments like surgery or medications against your quality of life.

Reasons to See a Geriatric Doctor

While there’s no set age to start seeing a geriatric doctor, most see patients who are 65 years and older. You should consider going to one if you:

  • Become frail or impaired
  • Have multiple conditions that require complex care and medication routines
  • Can no longer get adequate support from your caregivers
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES

Allegheny Health Network: “Geriatrics.”

American Geriatrics Society: “TRAINING FOR GERIATRICIANS.”

American Geriatrics Society: “WHY GERIATRICS.”

Connecticut Collaboration for Fall Prevention: “Facts about Falls.”

Harvard Mental Health Letter: “Recognizing and treating depression in the elderly.”

HealthinAging.Org: “Ask The Geriatrician: Dementia.”

Healthbeat: “Why choose a geriatrician?”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Specialists in Aging: Do You Need a Geriatrician?”

National Council on Aging: “Healthy Aging Facts”

Reliant Medical Group: “Signs and Symptoms of Heart Failure.”

UNC School of Medicine Center for Aging and Health: “Geriatric Heart Health: Goals of Care.”

University of California, Irvine School of Medicine: “Treating memory loss.”

University of Kentucky College of Nursing: “Improving Fall Risk Assessment and Documentation: A QI Project.”

Upstate University Hospital: “University Geriatricians.”

UTHealth Medical School: “Urinary Incontinence.”

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