A dementia diagnosis is life changing, both for the individual with the disease and their loved ones. If you sense that you or a family member may be showing signs of dementia, you likely have dozens of questions. But who should you call first when seeking a diagnosis? Dementia is one of those rare diseases that doesn’t fall under one medical specialty, and for that reason, it can be confusing to determine initial steps.
Each specialist can offer something different, but which one will best meet your needs? The truth is, it will differ from person to person. Here is a list of specialists you may encounter on your dementia journey to help you better understand the many ways in which they can assist. You may only need to see one of these care providers but consider that many of these resources may be helpful to you and your loved one as you navigate life with dementia.
Primary Care Physician
Your primary care physician (PCP) is an internal medicine or family medicine doctor who you have probably been seeing for years. Their familiarity with your medical history makes your PCP a great place to start the diagnosis process. They can more quickly determine if your dementia symptoms could be the result of an underlying health issue or a possible side effect from prescription medications. Talk to your PCP about their experience with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. While some may immediately refer you to a specialist, others may be able to offer specialized cognitive testing before referring you to another physician.
Neurologists diagnose and treat problems related to the brain and nervous system. Not only do they receive the same training as a primary care physician, but they also receive at least three additional years of specialized training in neurology and the pathology of the brain, including the study of all forms of dementia. As such, they are an excellent resource on dementia in its many forms. However, just as you would with your PCP, it is advisable to first ask if they regularly treat patients with dementia to ensure you will receive a well-informed and expert opinion.
This specialist is a psychologist who studies the relationship between the brain and how we think and behave. Neuropsychologists can administer a variety of tests to assess cognitive skills that are important in diagnosing dementia. Testing can be used to determine the state of your memory, language, reading, comprehension, and problem-solving skills. Neuropsychologists typically work in partnership with primary care physicians and other medical specialists.
Think of a geriatrician as a primary care physician with a special interest and expertise in treating those over the age of 65. Because they are specially trained in this specific stage of life, they are an excellent resource not only for dementia, but for the other health issues facing older adults. It is important to remember that a dementia diagnosis shapes the way you are treated for all other medical conditions. For this reason, a geriatrician is an important member of your care team as they are more familiar with both the physiological and emotional challenges of dementia as it progresses.
Geriatric psychiatrists are psychiatrists who are trained in the areas of mental health as it relates specifically to aging. They are medical doctors who have completed four years of medical school, four years of general psychiatry training, and an additional one- to two years of geriatric psychiatry training. Geriatric psychiatrists are especially helpful in dementia care because they are attuned to the unique physical and emotional needs of aging adults. As depression often goes hand in hand with dementia, this medical professional can be an invaluable resource.
Not to be confused with a geriatrician, a gerontologist is not a medical doctor. They are simply healthcare professionals who specialize in the study of the aging process as we progress from the middle- to late stages of life. More specifically, they are interested in learning how aging affects us physically, psychologically, and socially. They study all areas of aging from physiological changes to the relationship and societal shifts that occur from middle- to late age. Gerontologists are often advocates for changes in policies and programming that directly affect the aging population and spend much of their time educating other health professionals on aging. Their goal is to improve quality of life and promote the complete well-being of older adults.