A Coming Pandemic of Lyme Dementia?

Connelly Law Senior Blog

In last week’s Connelly Law’s Senior Issues Blog, we discussed other type of infections, other than Lyme Disease, that tick bites can cause. In this week’s blog, we are going to discuss the long-term effects of Lyme Disease and why some health officials are expecting a pandemic of Lyme related dementia. But first, let’s discuss what dementia is.

Dementia itself is not a specific disease but an overall term for a group of symptoms which includes a decline in memory or other thinking skills that are severe enough that a person struggles with performing everyday activities. The most common cause of dementia today is Alzheimer’s Disease, which accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases followed by Vascular Dementia, which occurs after a stroke.

At this time, research continues to search for a link between Alzheimer’s Disease and various other diseases but to date, there have been no conclusive studies indicating such a connection. However, one type of dementia has a link to Lyme disease and because of the dramatic rise in Lyme cases worldwide, many health professionals are predicting an increase in Lyme dementia cases due to the disease going undiagnosed and untreated.

As we discussed last week, ticks carry multiple diseases including Lyme disease and according to Psychology Today, Dr. Ernie Murakami, a retired medical professional, reports that more than 65 countries worldwide now report Lyme Disease and as a result, calls this a pandemic.

In the United States, more than 330,000 people are affected annually and the

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Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that only one in ten cases are actually reported since physicians do not usually look for Lyme disease when a patient presents with symptoms. In fact, the estimated number of annual Lyme infections is higher than Hepatitis C, HIV, colon and breast cancer.

According to the CDC, Lyme disease symptoms appear between three to thirty days after the tick bite and can include:

  • Fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes

  • A rash that:

  • ​Occurs in approximately 70 to 80 percent of infected persons

  • Begins at the site of a tick bite after a delay of 3 to 30 days (average is about 7 days)

  • Expands gradually over a period of days reaching up to 12 inches or more across

  • May feel warm to the touch but is rarely itchy or painful

  • Sometimes clears as it enlarges, resulting in a target or “bull’s-eye” appearance

  • May appear on any area of the body

The CDC also reports that later signs of Lyme includes:

  • Severe headaches and neck stiffness

  • Additional EM rashes on other areas of the body

  • Arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling, particularly the knees and other large joints.

  • Facial palsy (loss of muscle tone or droop on one or both sides of the face)

  • Intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints, and bones

  • Heart palpitations or an irregular heart beat (Lyme carditis)

  • Episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath

  • Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord

  • Nerve pain

  • Shooting pains, numbness, or tingling in the hands or feet

  • Problems with short-term memory

Medical researchers have known for some time of the debilitating symptoms that Lyme disease can cause, but they are now concerned with the find that one of the long-term outcomes of Lyme is a form of dementia.

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Although scientists have not been able to pinpoint the exact mechanism that causes Lyme related dementia, what they have found is a close relationship between a bacterium that caused one of the most common forms of dementia in the early 1900s – Syphilis.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the only known cause of dementia at that time was associated with the venereal disease Syphilis.

During the early twentieth century, between 10 and 25 percent of those admitted to mental institutions were there because of Syphilis, which eventually killed its victims.

During this time, a tenth of London and a full fifth of the US service corps were infected with this sexually transmitted disease. So prevalent was this disease that in 1929, the death rate among men in the United States for that disease was 28.3 for white men and 97.9 for black men per 100,000. By 1939, the disease had killed 20,000 people in the United States and by the middle of World War II, over half a million Americans were infected.

Syphilis, caused by the bacterium Treponema Pallidum, in its later stage caused an

infection of the brain and spinal column. Once called the paralysis of the insane it was considered to infect only those who lived a “wicked and intemperate” lifestyle (although pregnant women were able to pass on the disease to their children and blood transfusions could also infect recipients). With the introduction of antibiotics and a rigorous public health campaign, the disease was reduced dramatically.

The dementia caused by Syphilis is of a frontal type with prominent apathy, elation, attention deficits and memory impairment. Salient features of this type of dementia included coarse movements, dull facial expression, increased muscle reflexes and pupil abnormalities.

When researchers began to see similar types of dementia with Lyme disease, they began to look closer at a possible connection between the two and what they found caused them to call Syphilis “Lyme disease’s dumb cousin”.

Connelly Law Blog - Lyme Disease and Dementia

Lyme disease and syphilis are similar because both infections are caused by spirochete bacteria. This is a form of microscopic corkscrew-shaped bacteria that is quite effective at burrowing into nervous tissue and hiding. Lyme disease and Syphilis have both been frequently linked to Alzheimer’s and according to one study, Borrelia Burgdorferi, the corkscrew shaped bacterium passed on by the tick to humans, was found in 25.3% of Alzheimer’s cases.

The symptoms of Lyme disease are similar to other ailments such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis and more, causing many medical professionals to call Lyme “the great imitator”. Many who have Lyme also describe what has come to be called the “Lyme fog”, a neurological symptom associated with the disease. All of these symptoms seem to overlap with Alzheimer’s disease.

The notion that has been accepted by many practitioners that old people simply tend to present with symptoms like absent-mindedness, arthritis and fatigue may simply not be true. Because of this belief, doctors may easily miss the warning signs of Lyme, instead giving the patient a catch-all diagnoses such as Alzheimer's, heart disease or lupus.

Famed songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson reports that he had been misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's disease when the culprit was actually Lyme disease. Watch this report from FOX News.

It has been reported that some seniors have been misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's rather than the real problem -- Lyme disease. This concern started to gain national attention when songwriter and actor, Kris Kristofferson was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when he displayed all the classic symptoms associated with AD.

But in a 2016 story in Rolling Stone magazine, Kristofferson revealed that he had been misdiagnosed when a test for Lyme disease came back as positive.

"Some days, Kristofferson couldn't even remember what he was doing from one moment to the next," the Rolling Stone story said of the actor who starred alongside Barbra Streisand in the 1976 film "A Star is Born," and who is known for his roles in the Blade movies and other films.

Kristofferson’s wife told Rolling Stone she believed he picked the infection up from a tick as he crawled around the forest in Vermont during six weeks of filming the movie "Disappearances".

“He was taking all these medications for things he doesn’t have, and they all have side effects,” his wife, Lisa, told Rolling Stone. After three weeks of Lyme treatment, there are still some down days, but on other days he seems normal, she said. “All of a sudden he was back.”

So to be clear, this is not saying that Lyme disease can cause Alzheimer's disease as there is certainly no research that says that, but what we are saying is to be aware of the dangers of tick bites and the long term effects of Lyme disease. If a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, be sure to rule out other causes that could be responsible for the symptoms.

NEXT WEEK'S BLOG: This medication is being prescribed for seniors at increased rates and chances are, it is currently in a senior's medicine cabinet. With the decrease in the number of scripts written for opioids, it is increasingly being used for pain control. On the street, it is called "Johnny Rottens", "Johnnies", "Morontin" and "Gabbies". We will discuss how this drug is now being increasingly abused and how this abuse may affect seniors - both by its use and by those who may care for them.

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Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.

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