Your Healthcare Team: Doctors Who Diagnose and Treat Alzheimer's Disease
If you have Alzheimer's disease or suspect you might have the condition, there are a variety of doctors who can help diagnose and treat the condition.
Any chronic medical condition requires a team of professionals who specialize in various aspects of the condition, to ensure you get the most comprehensive, multi-disciplinary treatment to treat not just the condition, but to treat you as a person, in all areas of your life and wellness. It may not be necessary to see all of these kinds of doctors, and that's okay. Not everyone will see the same kinds of doctors as not everyone will have the same diagnostic journey or have the same symptoms.
Primary care physician
Primary care physicians, also known as PCPs, generalists, or family doctors, are often the first medical professionals that speak with a patient about their concerns regarding memory loss or potential diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. In order to become a PCP, after graduating from four years of medical school, a person completes a residency in either family medicine, pediatrics, gynecology, or internal medicine.1 These take approximately three years, but sometimes longer if the doctor chooses additional training or chooses a specialty.
PCPs can provide initial assessments and perhaps even a complete evaluation, but you should ask your doctor how familiar they are with diagnosing dementia and how much experience they have with memory problems in patients, and when they would consider referring out to a specialist.2
Neurologist or memory disorder specialist
A neurologist is a specialist who is trained in nervous system disorders, especially issues with the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves.2
As with most branches of medicine, neurologists can focus on different aspects of these disorders, or choose to concentrate their care on one disorder. This is something to consider when looking for a neurologist: ask them if they specialize in dementia or the care of Alzheimer's patients.
In addition to a medical degree, neurologists complete an internship and then a residency in neurology that is at least three years long. If they decide to pursue further specialization like training in sleep medicine or want to focus on one disorder, they might have additional training after their residency.3
You might also see doctors labeled as “memory disorder specialists.” These can be neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, or geriatricians who specialize in diagnosing and treating dementia or other memory disorders.
A psychiatrist, especially one who specializes in geriatrics, may be a helpful specialist to see to rule out any other cause of memory loss or mental health issues, as well as address any behavioral issues that may be associated with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's.
Psychiatrists concentrate on diagnosing and treating mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Training to become a psychiatrist involves graduating from medical school and completing a four-year psychiatry residency.4 If they want to specialize in an area like geriatric or forensic psychiatry, additional training is often done.
Psychologists have a bachelor's (BS), master's (MS), or doctoral degree (PhD, EdD, or PsyD). Those that go through a doctoral program also complete a one-year, full-time, supervised pre-doctoral internship as well as a post-doctoral internship.5
Graduate school coursework involves classes on cognitive aspects of behavior, ethics, statistics, biological and social aspects of behavior, psychological assessment, and therapy, along with things like family dynamics, child psychology, and more.
Neuropsychologists have additional training in neuropsychology and focus on testing and assessing cognitive skills and functioning.2
If you have children, you're familiar with pediatricians, or doctors who specialize in the care of children – but did you know there's a kind of doctor that specializes in the care of older individuals? These doctors are called geriatricians. Geriatricians are PCPs who have additional, specialized training in treating older patients.6
While there's no specific age at which you want to start seeing a geriatrician, this kind of professional can be helpful if you have a variety of medical conditions, have any sort of decline in functioning, or have an ailment associated with aging, like Alzheimer's.
These are just some of the doctors who may be part of your treatment team for Alzheimer's disease. Depending on your symptoms, effects on your life, your physical health, and any other medical issues that may come up, your personal team might look different and include one or more of these professionals.
There is no one "right" or "wrong" treatment team make-up; each person is different and care is tailored to your needs.