Gerontologist vs. Geriatrician: Definitions and Differences

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published November 27, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In the health care field, there are experts who work with specific groups of patients. Both gerontologists and geriatricians work with the elderly, but the two roles have many differences. If you're a student or building your career, learning more about these roles can help you determine which is best for you to pursue. In this article, we compare gerontologists and geriatricians, list their similarities, and offer helpful tips for choosing the specialty that's best for your career.

Gerontologist vs. geriatrician

Understanding the differences between gerontologists and geriatricians can help you determine which career path is best for you. Here are the differences between a gerontologist vs. geriatrician:

Definition

A gerontologist is a science professional who studies the effects and process of aging. Gerontology is a field that helps society understand aging and how it affects different aspects of society. Gerontologists may focus on how aging affects sociological, psychological, biological, and cognitive functions. The processes within aging that gerontologists study include:

  • Biological aging: Biological aging is the process of how your organs and other bodily functions begin to change with age. Gerontologists may study how this affects function and ability.

  • Chronological aging: This term refers to how we measure age based on culture and society. For example, a gerontologist may strive to understand more about our measure of years lived from birth.

  • Psychological aging: While biological aging focuses on the body itself, psychological aging focuses on the changes within the mind. Gerontologists study how aging affects cognition, perception, senses, adaptability, and personality.

  • Social aging: Each person exists within units of society, like families and communities. The study of social aging helps gerontologists better understand how aging affects us in relation to those around us.

Geriatricians are health care professionals who work directly with the elderly. A geriatrician provides elderly patients with holistic care to help them manage the symptoms of aging. For example, a geriatrician may see patients and help them assess their lifestyles and current treatments. A geriatrician is similar to a physician or general practice doctor, except the geriatrician has special knowledge and experience working with the elderly.

Related: What Is Gerontology? (Plus How to Become a Gerontologist)

Medical degree and license

To become a gerontologist, you likely need at least a bachelor's degree or higher in a related field. Graduating from medical school may not be a strict requirement for gerontologists. Though it's not a requirement, many gerontologists may have degrees and experience in fields like psychology, nursing, or medicine. Gerontologists often also have a master's degree related to gerontology and can pursue certification if they choose.

Geriatricians are practising health care professionals and must be certified by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in internal medicine to pursue the Certificate of Special Competence in Geriatric Medicine. Aspiring geriatricians complete an undergraduate degree in a related field, like pre-med, biology, chemistry, or psychology, then complete medical school. To become a geriatrician, you may spend significant amounts of time training with other geriatric specialists before working independently.

Related: 16 High-Paying Health Care Jobs (With Duties and Salaries)

Job responsibilities

Gerontologists study the process and effects of aging. These are some tasks they may complete during a normal day:

  • conducting research into aging

  • speaking with the elderly

  • gathering information about age conditions

  • developing theories for condition treatment

  • writing scholarly articles about aging

  • communicating with other gerontologists

Geriatricians work directly with the elderly to provide them with medical care. These are some tasks they may complete during a normal day:

  • meeting with patients and noting their concerns

  • identifying and diagnosing issues

  • prescribing medication and treatments

  • collaborating with other doctors to provide holistic care

  • creating plans for end-of-life care

  • communicating with patients about their lifestyle choices

  • implementing plans for improving patient health

Related: 40 Jobs for People With a Sociology Degree

Career paths

A professional who trains in geriatric care during medical school most often becomes a geriatrician. Some geriatricians may choose a specific subfield of geriatrics to specialize in, such as medical conditions related to memory loss. Professionals who pursue the field of gerontology have more potential career paths. Job possibilities for gerontologists include:

  • Social worker: Social workers help clients resolve problems and improve their standard of living. A social worker specializing in gerontology may take more cases with elderly clients.

  • Research scientist: Research scientists focus on gathering information and producing scholarly articles on gerontology. The research scientist may perform studies and distribute surveys to learn more about the elderly population.

  • Grant writer: A grant writer crafts the proposals that help institutions apply for and receive funding for projects and research. They can work for any organization that regularly applies for grants.

  • Health educator: A health educator helps groups of people learn how to improve their health. Health educators who focus on gerontology may meet with the elderly and help them learn how to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Related: 13 Careers in Geriatrics (With Average Salaries and Duties)

Skills

Although gerontologists and geriatricians often possess similar soft skills, they likely have different hard skills. Hard skills refer to abilities or knowledge learned through training and practice. Geriatricians possess hard skills related to providing direct patient care. These hard skills may include interpreting the results of diagnostic imaging tests, performing medical evaluations, and devising personalized treatment plans.

Gerontologists' hard skills, however, depend on the particular profession they've chosen. Gerontologists who pursue medical research, for example, understand how to safely and effectively conduct clinical trials. A gerontology professional who is a social worker likely has more advanced knowledge and skill related to connecting elderly adults with community resources.

Related: 10 Medical Certifications for the Health Care Industry

Gerontologist and geriatrician similarities

Though there are many differences when you compare gerontologist vs. geriatrician, the two also have many things in common. Geriatricians and gerontologists have several commonalities, including:

Health care

Gerontologists and geriatricians both work in the field of health care. They receive an education that covers the physical and mental health conditions related to the aging process. They also understand the effect that these conditions can have on an individual's life, whether these effects are medical or social.

Related: 16 Jobs for Working With Seniors (With Job Duties and FAQs)

Population

Geriatricians and gerontologists specialize in health care for people who are elderly. They understand the unique conditions or medical concerns that older adults may have. They also learn methods for mitigating or preventing these conditions or their symptoms.

Related: Leadership in Health Care: Definition, Qualities, and Styles

Soft skills

Both gerontologists and geriatricians often possess similar soft skills, meaning personality traits or behaviours that affect their work performance. Soft skills of geriatricians and gerontologists likely include:

  • Communication: Communication skills allow professionals to understand and convey information when speaking with another person. This allows both specialists to work in teams and connect with patients or clients.

  • Teamwork: Both gerontologists and geriatricians work with teams to conduct research or provide holistic care. Teamwork allows them to resolve conflict and find the best solution for the problem.

  • Emotional intelligence: Working with the elderly can be difficult, as they often experience unique problems compared to other disciplines. Emotional intelligence allows the professional to connect with clients and patients and show them empathy and understanding.

Related: 14 Highest-Paying Health Care Administrator Jobs and Duties

Tips for choosing between these careers

Here are some tips to help you choose between pursuing a career as a geriatrician or a gerontologist:

  • Think about your interests. If you're interested in working directly with patients in a health care environment, you might want to become a geriatrician. Professionals interested in working directly with clients but not necessarily in a health care environment, meanwhile, might prefer to study gerontology and pursue a career like a social worker, case manager, home health aide, or dietitian.

  • Assess your preferred work environment. Geriatricians work in health care environments such as hospitals, private practices, hospice facilities, and nursing homes. A gerontologist has a wider choice of work environments and may work in a laboratory setting as a medical scientist. Gerontologists who pursue social or policy work might change work environments as they travel to their various clients.

  • Consider your career values. Becoming a geriatrician requires going to medical school and completing a residency, so it typically takes three to five years longer to become a geriatrician than a gerontologist. Professionals hoping to start their next career more quickly may prefer to pursue gerontology.

Explore more articles