Gerontology and geriatrics are scientific and medical disciplines respectively, that are concerned with all aspects of health and disease in the elderly, and with the normal aging process. Gerontology is the scientific study of the phenomena of aging, by which is meant the progressive changes that take place in a cell, a tissue, an organ, a system, a total organism, or a group of organisms with the passage of time. Aging is part of the development sequence of the entire life span, from prenatal growth to senescence. Gerontology, however, is concerned primarily with the changes that occur between the attainment of maturity and the death of the individual and with the factors that influence these changes.
The problems of gerontology fall into four major categories: social and economic problems precipitated by the increasing number of elderly people in the population, psychological aspects of aging, which include intellectual performance and personal adjustment, physiological bases of aging, along with pathological deviations and disease processes, and general biological aspects of aging in all animal species.
Gerontology utilizes the methodologies of many other scientific and medical disciplines. The goal of research in gerontology is to learn more about the aging process—not for the purpose of extending the life span but for the purpose of possibly minimizing the disabilities and handicaps of old age. Geriatrics is the branch of medical science concerned with the prevention and treatment of diseases in older people; it is thus a part of the broader field of gerontology.
Before the 19th century, when most people died before reaching old age, there was little demand for physicians to specialize in the care of the elderly; declining health was regarded as an inevitable accompaniment to old age. The first to stress the importance of special studies of disease in old age was the French physician Jean-Martin Charcot in 1881, but few physicians undertook those studies until the early 20th century. It was then observed that a large number of pathological changes occurred among older people and that an understanding of the aging process might lead to less disease in the elderly. Thus was the study of gerontology began.
Geriatrics on the other hand is the branch of medicine concerned with the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease in older people and the problems specific to aging. Medical care for older adults, an age group that is not easy to define precisely. “Older” is preferred over “elderly,” but both are equally imprecise; > 65 is the age often used, but most people do not need geriatrics expertise in their care until age 70, 75, or even 80. See: Radiation Oncology: Everything You Should Know
Around the year 1900 in the US, people > 65 accounted for 4% of the population; now they account for > 14% (nearly 50 million, with a net gain of 10,000/day). In 2026, when post–World War II baby boomers begin to reach age 80, estimates suggest that > 20% (almost 80 million) will be > 65. The mean age of those > 65 is now a little more than 75, and the proportion of those > 85 is predicted to increase most rapidly.
Life expectancy is an additional 17 years at age 65 and 10 years at age 75 for men and an additional 20 years at age 65 and 13 years at age 75 for women. Overall, women live about 5 years longer than men, probably because of genetic, biological, and environmental factors. These differences in survival have changed little despite changes in women’s lifestyle (eg, increased smoking, increased stress) over the late 20th century and into the 21st.
Aging (ie, pure aging) refers to the inevitable, irreversible decline in organ function that occurs over time even in the absence of injury, illness, environmental risks, or poor lifestyle choices (eg, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, substance abuse). Initially, the changes in organ function (see table Selected Physiologic Age-Related Changes) do not affect baseline function; the first manifestations are a reduced capacity of each organ to maintain homeostasis under stress (eg, illness, injury). The cardiovascular, renal, and central nervous systems are usually the most vulnerable (the weakest links).
Diseases interact with pure aging effects to cause geriatric-specific complications (now referred to as geriatric syndromes), particularly in the weak-link systems—even when those organs are not the primary ones affected by a disease. Typical examples are delirium complicating pneumonia or urinary tract infections and the falls, dizziness, syncope, urinary incontinence, and weight loss that often accompany many minor illnesses in older adults. Aging organs are also more susceptible to injury; eg, intracranial hemorrhage is more common and is triggered by less clinically important injury in older adults.
The effects of aging must be taken into account during the diagnosis and treatment of older adults. Clinicians should not
- Mistake pure aging for disease (eg, slow information retrieval is not dementia)
- Mistake disease for pure aging (eg, ascribe debilitating arthritis, tremor, or dementia to old age)
- Ignore the increased risk of adverse drug effects on weak-link systems stressed by illness
- Forget that older adults often have multiple underlying disorders (eg, hypertension, diabetes, atherosclerosis) that accelerate the potential for harm
In addition, clinicians should be alert for diseases and problems that are much more common among older adults (eg, diastolic heart failure, Alzheimer’s disease, incontinence, atrial fibrillation). This approach enables clinicians to better understand and manage the complexity of the diseases that often coexist in older patients.
Summary of The Differences Between Gerontology and Geriatrics
Gerontology is multidisciplinary and is concerned with physical, mental, and social aspects and implications of aging. Geriatrics is a medical specialty focused on the care and treatment of older persons. Although gerontology and geriatrics have differing emphases, they both have the goal of understanding aging so that people can maximize their functioning and achieve a high quality of life. See: Top Online Gerontology Certificate Courses and Programs
Why Pursue a Career in Gerontology?
Earning a degree in gerontology can open the door to many rewarding and lucrative job opportunities. Graduates can pursue careers in diverse industries, including healthcare, administration, academia, research, and consulting. They can find positions as research analysts, social workers, and medical and health services managers.
Professionals who devote themselves to helping older adults can expect increased opportunities for career growth. As Americans live longer, there will be a greater need for professionals who offer medical, social, financial, and other types of support to the aging population.
How Much Do Gerontology Majors Make?
Potential salaries for gerontology majors vary by industry, job function, location, experience, and education. For example, although caregivers earn low salaries, occupational therapists make significantly more than the average occupation in the U.S. The table below outlines a sampling of careers available to gerontology graduates.
|Median Salary for Gerontology Professionals by Occupation and Job Level|
|JOB TITLE||ENTRY-LEVEL EMPLOYEES
|EARLY CAREER EMPLOYEES
|Geriatric Social Worker||$40,000||$43,000||$48,000||$45,000|
|Mental Health Therapist||$40,000||$41,000||$47,000||$49,000|
Careers In Geriatrics
Geriatrician: A geriatrician is an internal or family medicine physician who also has special expertise (and may be board-certified) in geriatrics. In addition to their special knowledge of health and well-being as we age, geriatricians are known for collaborating with interdisciplinary teams including nurses, pharmacists, physician assistants, social workers, and many others who work together to coordinate complex care for older adults and caregivers. Geriatricians can work in private or group practices, long-term care facilities, post-acute care facilities, hospitals/health systems, academic medical centers or other research settings.
Geriatric Nurse Practitioner: Nursing roles are diverse, ranging from delivering or overseeing direct care and coordinating case management to establishing nursing practice standards, developing quality assurance procedures, and directing complex nursing care systems. Nurse practitioners have advanced training allowing them to prescribe certain medications, perform exams, diagnose and treat certain illnesses, and work with individuals like older adults and caregivers to manage care and treatment decision-making. Registered Nurses, Advanced Practice Registered Nurses, and Licensed Practice/Licensed Vocational Nurses are among the diverse group of nurse professionals working in many different settings, including clinics, hospitals/health systems, private practices, and research facilities.
Geriatric Pharmacist: A pharmacist not only receives expert training to prepare and dispense medication but also helps people understand different treatment options and how to manage care when using medications. Geriatric pharmacy specialists are those who have special knowledge in the care of older adults. Geriatric pharmacists often work in consultative roles as part of healthcare teams. Many geriatric pharmacists also work in lead roles at skilled nursing facilities, assisted living sites, hospice facilities, and other healthcare institutions. Regardless of where they practice, pharmacists are an integral part of the provision of care for older adults and serve as experts in medication-related information for their healthcare teams.
Geriatric Physician Assistant: A physician assistant (PA) is a healthcare professional who works on a team with physicians and other healthcare providers. PAs have special training and work with their interprofessional colleagues to diagnose and treat certain illnesses, as well as prescribe medications, perform physical exams, take medical histories, order and interpret laboratory tests, and assist in other procedures common across health care. PAs work in private practices, hospitals, and clinics, and those with a focus on geriatrics often specialize in person-centered care, transitions of care and discharge planning, comprehensive geriatrics assessment, mobility management, ethics, end-of-life care, nursing home care, and best practices for addressing geriatrics syndromes.
Geriatric Social Worker: Social workers are health professionals committed to enhancing the well-being of diverse individuals, families, groups, communities, and societies, with a particular focus on those who are most vulnerable. Social workers who specialize in gerontological social work counsel older adults, caregivers, and communities on many aspects of life that change as we age, including those related to overall well-being, illness, disability, and changes in socio-economic circumstances. Gerontological social workers practice in many different settings, including at hospitals, aging services organizations, prisons, social service agencies, private practices, and mental health clinics. Long-term gerontological social work includes coordinating care and addressing challenges and opportunities as they arise over a period of months, years, and sometimes even decades. See: Behavioral Science Degree and Career Guide