A family physician or primary care doctor is usually the first contact when there are indications of cognitive difficulties. He or she usually will oversee the diagnostic process.

The physician can coordinate the needs of the patient as well as make referrals to specialists and help the family consider courses of action. The family physician typically has been working with the family for years and may have better insight into the patient's care.

Some people prefer to see a geriatrician, a doctor who works with older adults and who can decide if symptoms indicate a serious problem. Geriatricians are in short supply and should not be confused with a gerontologist, generally not a physician but someone who focuses on aging research.

Although there are more than 7,500 geriatricians in the U.S., the nation needs an estimated 17,000 to care for the country's 12 million older Americans, according to the American Geriatric Society projections. The organization estimates that about 30 percent of the 65-plus patient population will need a geriatrician. One geriatrician can care for 700 patients.

A person with suspected dementia or Alzheimer's is most often referred to a neurologist, a physician who focuses on abnormalities of the brain and the central nervous system. Neurologists conduct in-depth memory assessments and neurological examinations, such as MRI and CT scans, to assist in making a diagnosis and drafting a care plan.

There are also various sub-specialties of physicians. A geriatric psychiatrist specializes in the mental and emotional problems of older adults and deals with the study, prevention and treatment of mental disorders in older adults. A geropsychologist specialists in mental health disorders, depression and aging, anxiety and age-related illnesses. A neuropsychologist is concerned with how the brain and the rest of the nervous system influences a person's cognition and behaviors. They often focus on how injuries or illnesses of the brain affect cognitive functions and behaviors.

Because an Alzheimer's diagnosis isn't always easy to confirm, getting a second opinion is often recommended. Once a diagnosis is made, choosing a doctor or team of doctors can be difficult, as the person may have unique needs in regard to time, services or symptoms. Another important consideration is finding a doctor that accepts the person's insurance.

Friends and family, as well as local health care providers and Alzheimer's Service, can provide recommendations for doctors or specialists. You also should research the level of experience the medical professional has in treating the disease.

The most important consideration should be finding a doctor the caregiver and affected person can trust and how this doctor advocates for the treatment and care of that person. The relationship should be one of mutual understanding on the plan of care throughout the journey of the disease.


Questions about Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder can be sent to Dana Territo, the Memory Whisperer, director of services at Alzheimer's Services of the Capital Area at advice@alzbr.org or visit the organization at 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge.