How to Choose an Alzheimer's Doctor

Choosing the Best Professional to Meet Your Needs

How to Choose a Dementia Doctor from this Group
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When it comes to Alzheimer's disease, choosing an Alzheimer's doctor is crucial to receiving the proper care and treatment. But who do you see? The medical field has split itself into so many specialties that finding the right professional can be a daunting task.

Your primary care physician is often the best place to start; if more focused testing or treatment is needed, you may be referred to a specialist.

However, primary care physicians don't always refer patients to specialists, even when it could help clarify a diagnosis or supplement primary treatment. In these cases, it’s up to you to sort through the maze of medical professionals.

If you feel that you want more specialized care, use the following guide to help you determine what kind of expert will best meet your needs. Of course, always check to make sure professionals are licensed or certified to practice their specializations.

Geriatric Nurse Practitioner (GNP)

A GNP is a registered nurse who specializes in the care of older adults. GNPs may be well-versed in medication and behavioral issues related to Alzheimer's. Becoming a GNP requires a master’s degree and certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center. 

Geriatric Psychiatrist

A geriatric psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders commonly affecting the older population.

Geriatric psychiatrists can prescribe medications to treat the cognitive and behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer's. They must earn a doctorate in medicine and complete a residency in psychiatry with an emphasis on geriatrics.

Geriatrician

A geriatrician is a physician who specializes in the health challenges and diseases common among older adults.

Geriatricians sometimes serve as primary physicians for older patients. Becoming a geriatrician requires a doctorate in medicine and a residency in internal medicine, followed by a fellowship (subspecialty training) in geriatrics.

Gerontologist

A gerontologist is a professional who specializes in the biological, psychological, and social aspects of aging. Gerontologists have a master's or doctoral degree in gerontology and can provide non-medical services to older adults, such as caregiver classes and support groups or early-stage support groups for people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Although gerontologists are not medical professionals, they are mentioned here because they provide important support services that supplement medical care.

Geropsychologist

A geropsychologist is a psychologist who specializes in the mental health challenges of the older population. Geropsychologists can perform psychological testing and focus therapy on issues related to caregiving, coping, behavior management of Alzheimer's symptoms, and grief and loss.

A geropsychologist must have a doctorate in psychology and must have completed an intensive internship of supervised practice with older adults.

Neurologist

A neurologist is a physician who specializes in diseases of the nervous system, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and stroke. A neurologist has a doctorate in medicine and has completed a residency in neurology. Neurologists may or may not have specific experience and training in diseases of the older population.

Neuropsychologist

A neuropsychologist is a psychologist who specializes in the relationship between brain systems and behavior. Neuropsychologists can perform neuropsychological testing to determine the type and level of impairment due to Alzheimer's disease, traumatic brain injury, stroke, or other conditions. Becoming a neuropsychologist requires a doctorate in psychology and an intensive internship in neuropsychology. Neuropsychologists may or may not have specific experience and training in conditions affecting older adults.

Next Steps

If you're still not sure of who to call, ask around. Word of mouth referrals are often a great way to find someone who is an expert in the field. 

Other resources you could tap for suggestions include your local Alzheimer's Association, dementia care centers and home health care centers in your community.  

Sources:

Careers in geriatric psychiatry. American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. 2004. 

Gerontological nurse practitioner certification. American Nurses Credentialing Center. 2007. 

How do you become a physician? American Medical Association. March 18, 2005. http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/14365.html

How do you become a professional in aging? Association for Gerontology in Higher Education. 2001. http://www.careersinaging.com/careersinaging/professionals.html

-Edited by Esther Heerema, MSW

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