AN ARTICLE IN The New York Times recently revealed that Tom Seaver, legendary pitcher and the most prominent player in New York Mets history, is stepping back from public life because of advancing dementia. It was recently discovered that Seaver, 74, has dementia. However, for many years he suffered from the effects of Lyme disease, which can cause cognitive problems similar to dementia.
Sever’s diagnosis is likely to reignite a debate within the medical community on whether or not Lyme disease can be linked to the source of dementia. In 2016, songwriter, actor and singer Kris Kristofferson had long suffered from cognitive symptoms that were believed to be Alzheimer’s disease or some other type of dementia. However, after finally receiving a test, it was confirmed that he had Lyme disease. His wife Lisa told Rolling Stone at the time, he still had some bad days, but after three days of treatment it was like “all of a sudden he was back.”
BORRELIA BACTERIA & DEMENTIA CONNECTION
According to a 2017 National Institute of Health study, dementia as a dominant symptom of meningoencephalitis in Lyme neuroborreliosis (LNB) is extremely rare. However, it has been argued that dementia-like syndromes associated with Lyme disease occur more frequently when less stringent diagnostic criteria are used. It’s also believed that infections with Borrelia organism, the bacterial species that’s the known cause of Lyme disease, may even cause or trigger primary dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. There has yet to be conclusive studies to determine if Lyme disease can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
LYME DISEASE 101
Lyme disease is contracted from an infected blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick. If left untreated, it can eventually cause a host of debilitating symptoms, including severe headaches, one or more rashes, stiff neck, severe joint pain and swelling, heart palpitations, facial paralysis, dizziness, nerve pain and memory loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
MISDIAGNOSIS AND DELAYED TREATMENT
Those fortunate enough to diagnose Lyme disease early, within the first few weeks, are likely to have success with appropriate antibiotics. Unfortunately, Lyme disease is often missed and the infectionis allowed to take hold, disrupting the immune system and causing a cascade of inflammatory responses.
Even when Lyme is suspected and a blood test is ordered, the common “Western Blot” test often results in false negatives – while Lyme’s co-infection antibodies are rarely even looked for, although they may even be more common than Lyme itself. It’s not uncommon for someone with Lyme to receive multiple negative test results before achieving a proper diagnosis. This leaves thousands of undiagnosed patients sick and confused, spending months, years, or even decades wandering around from doctor to doctor, trying to find out what is wrong with them.
After 3-6 months in the body without treatment Lyme has affected the immune system and becomes difficult to eradicate with antibiotics alone. A study published in 2012 showed that Lyme disease has tenacious survival skills. Inside the body, the Borrelia organism forms a biofilm, which allows it to constantly rearrange its structure, hide, and resist environmental conditions such as antibiotics.
PREVENTION AND EARLY DETECTION
Education is the best form of prevention, and whether or not there is a solid connection between dementia, it’s best to avoid a bite, and if you incur one, to what your next steps are. Below we have signs and symptoms and prevention information from the CDC.
Blacklegged Tick Habitat
The tiny arachnids are found in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, north-central and Pacific Coast areas of the United States. Blacklegged ticks (aka deer ticks) live in moist and humid environments, particularly in or near wooded or grassy areas. In areas where deer are present, the risk is much higher. Assume if you’ve spotted deer in your neighborhood that the blacklegged tick is likely living in your backyard.
To keep from getting infected by ticks, take the following precautions: Avoid wooded areas with a lot of brush, high grass and leaf litter; stick to the center of trails; use bug repellent with DEET (20 to 30 percent) on exposed skin and clothes; use repellants with 0.5 percent permethrin on clothing (some clothing comes pre-treated). Remember that pets can bring ticks inside, so make sure they are protected, too. Ask your veterinarian for advice.
Perform Daily Tick Checks
Be sure to check yourself, your children, and your pets after being outdoors. Create a top-down checklist, searching the following areas:
- In and around all head (and body) hair
- In and around the ears
- Under the arms
- Around the waist
- Inside the belly button
- Between the legs
- Back of the knees
- Underneath socks
TIP: Placing clothing in a dryer on high heat will effectively kill ticks.
How to Remove a Tick
- If possible, use pointed tweezers
- Disinfect the tweezers with rubbing alcohol
- Grab the tick close to the skin and use a slow, steady motion to pull the tick out
- Disinfect the tweezers again
- Keep an eye on the bite area
Lyme Symptoms: Days 1-30
Treating an infection within the first three weeks is critical to reducing the risk of chronic Lyme disease, which can last for the rest of your life. If the following symptoms appear (especially during the warmer months when infection is likely), seek medical assistance right away.
Initial Early Symptoms
- Flu-like illness (unexplained fever, chills, or body aches)
- Extreme fatigue
- Mood swings
Someone who has contracted Lyme disease from a tick may or may not see a “bulls-eye” rash at the site of the bite(s). The CDCstates that a rash occurs in approximately 70-80% of infected persons. If a rash does appear, it is typically within 3-7 days.
- The rash gradually expands over a period of several days and can reach up to 12 inches across.
- Parts of the rash may clear as it enlarges, resulting in a “bulls-eye” appearance.
- The rash usually feels warm to the touch, yet is rarely itchy or painful.
Lyme Symptoms: Days 30 and Beyond
Chronic Lyme Symptoms
Weeks to months after the bite
- Joint inflammation and pain
- Bell’s palsy
- Impaired memory
- Brain fog and difficulty thinking
- Irritability and explosive rages
- Panic attacks
Late-Stage Persistent Lyme Symptoms
Months to years after the bite
- Progressive dementias
- Seizure disorders
- Heart problems
- A variety of movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis-like syndromes
- Visual disturbances or loss of vision
While more research is being conducted, and the connection between Lyme disease and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are being explored, we choose not to hedge our bets and avoid infection in the first place. To read more about Alzheimer’s disease, check out our blog “Taking Action After Alzheimer’s Diagnosis.“