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What is Geriatric Medicine?

By Kathy Heydasch
Updated Feb 23, 2024
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Medical treatment of the elderly population by geriatricians includes everything from herbal supplements to organ transplants, all to attempt to extend the lifespan and increase the quality of life. As Ponce de Leon allegedly found out nearly 500 years ago, there exists no fountain of youth. The modern version of the story involves people living longer lives as a result of geriatric medicine.

Problems with health can target young and old alike, but there is considerable study given to geriatric medicine, which focuses on the care of older people. There is no set age when a patient is handed over to a different doctor for treatment of ailments related to the elderly. This typically happens gradually as physical shortcomings present themselves through the normal process of aging. There is, however, a difference between aging and disease, and geriatric medicine can focus on both.

There are five areas of medicine that most frequently occur with older patients. These are known as the “geriatric giants”, and are infection, incontinence, instability, immobility and impaired cognition. While any one of these can affect a child or adult, older people are more susceptible.

Geriatric medicine broke off from internal medicine as a specialty quite some time ago. Nowadays, doctors are becoming even more specialized, with fields of study as narrow as geriatric rheumatology or geriatric nephrology. More often, technology plays a big factor in geriatric medicine. New technologies allow for a greater understanding of the complex inter-workings of a person’s main systems, like respiratory and cardiovascular. As the vast population of baby boomers gets older, new technology allows for greater remote monitoring of the elderly as well.

The field of geriatric medicine has its own unique set of problems due to diseases with declining brain functions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, or general dementia. This involves dealing with issues relating to patients not being able to make decisions for themselves. A geriatric doctor must be familiar with legal topics like advance directives, living wills and powers of attorney. He or she must also be familiar with state and federal laws dealing with the care of one person at the direction of another.

Many senior adults experience what is known as polypharmacy, where many medicines are prescribed at one time, either by accident or on purpose. With the vast array of side effects that can arise from any one prescription, it is easy to see how complicated it can be when dealing with several. Many drugs interact with others and can produce dangerous side effects. Geriatric specialists can help monitor patients.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Phaedrus — On Jan 28, 2014

@Buster29, I finally found a geriatrician about a hour's drive from my grandparents' home and it has really made a difference. He really speaks their language. My grandfather had a bad stroke five years ago and isn't easy to understand when he speaks. The doctor was very patient and just let him find the words on his own time. Sometimes I had a feeling their original doctor got a little frustrated when they couldn't remember an important thing about a medication or whatever.

If you have elderly parents or grandparents, I encourage you to seek out a good geriatric doctor, even if you might have to go a little more out of your way for appointments.

By Buster29 — On Jan 27, 2014

I have an elderly mother-in-law, and I would love to find a geriatric doctor in this area who accepts new patients. A good geriatrician is not easy to find, and the ones who do set up a practice are often swamped with patients. Her regular doctor does a decent job of diagnosing general illnesses and prescribing medications for her aches and pains, but I'd really like to find someone who specializes in the problems of the elderly.

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