Geriatric psychiatry is the branch of clinical medicine dedicated to the study and the care of mental disorders in older adults. Such disorders include depression, dementia, delirium, other forms of cognitive impairment and behavioral disturbances, psychosis, anxiety, substance abuse, and sleep disorders. Some of these problems may have come on only in the later years; others may have begun in middle age or even have been lifelong. Their causes can range from brain diseases, to diseases or conditions of other parts of the body, to adjustment problems or other emotional/psychological problems. The treatment of these problems begins with the proper diagnosis, and requires not just expertise in geriatric psychiatry but also knowledge of geriatric medicine, neurology, gerontology, abnormal psychology, and psychopharmacology. Often a multidisciplinary approach is needed, involving coordination and teamwork among the primary care physician, psychiatrists, and other specialists.
Research in geriatric psychiatry and related fields focuses on elucidating the epidemiology (how conditions are distributed throughout the population), genetics (inheritance), risk and protective factors, etiology (causal factors), pathophysiology (how the different conditions develop and progress within the body/brain), symptomatology (how different people manifest the conditions), and treatment of mental disorders and psychiatric syndromes that are common in late life. Such research includes identifying genetic risk factors for Alzheimer's disease, and developing new drugs for the safe and effective treatment of depression.
Geriatric psychiatrists are physicians who have completed four years of specialty training in general psychiatry after receiving their M.D. or D.O. degree, followed by at least one additional year of clinical training in geriatric psychiatry. At the completion of their clinical training (typically nine years beyond college), geriatric psychiatrists can become board-certified in psychiatry with added qualifications in geriatric psychiatry. Geriatric psychiatrists diagnose and treat their patients in a variety of practice settings. They see patients admitted to general and psychiatric hospitals on units specializing in the care of older patients suffering from mental disorders. They provide consultation to primary care physicians and medical specialists regarding their older patients who present with psychiatric symptoms. They take care of older outpatients whom they treat with psychotropic medications or psychotherapy in clinics and private offices. They directly manage or provide consultation on residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Since most older patients with mental disorders also suffer from physical illnesses, geriatric psychiatrists are particularly attuned to the multiple interactions between concurrent mental and physical problems. Some of the life transitions to which older adults must adjust can be stressful and cause coping difficulties, which in turn can lead to more significant problems.
Since the 1950s, through their clinical and research work differentiating "normal aging" from late-life mental disorders, geriatric psychiatrists have contributed to the understanding that the majority of older people are cognitively intact and well adjusted, and they enjoy life. Conversely, "senility" (i.e., dementia), depression, and behavioral disturbances occurring late in life are caused by diseases that can be prevented and treated.
BENOIT H. MULSANT, M.D.
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