Could Lyme Symptoms Be Mistaken for Alzheimer’s?

Q. I recently read an article about songwriter and actor, Kris Kristofferson, who was told he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or some other type of dementia, and was actually misdiagnosed and had Lyme disease. He and his wife were amazed that after three weeks of Lyme treatment, along with dropping his Alzheimer’s and depression meds, his memory came back and he was back to normal!

My mother has memory loss that seems to be getting worse, and her doctor hinted that it could be Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. She used to camp and hike often, and never used any sort of insect repellent. I know Lyme can be a debilitating disease also, but it would be amazing if the symptoms she is experiencing could be Lyme disease instead of Alzheimer’s or dementia, because I know Lyme is treatable. And I know Alzheimer’s has no cure and only a handful of treatments available, which can alleviate some of the symptoms. To your knowledge, how common is Lyme being misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s, what are some of the other symptoms of Lyme, what’s involved in getting tested? What if it really is Alzheimer’s? Thanks for your help!

A. Lyme disease is caused by 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, 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 (CDC). Lyme disease has been misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and up to 350 other diseases.

About 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year, according to the CDC, and the government has recognized it as a “major health threat.”

These symptoms of Lyme are usually seen between three and 30 days after a tick bite, the CDC says:

  • Fever and chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, swollen lymph nodes
  • Rash known as erythema migraines (EM)

Later Signs and Symptoms may be experienced weeks or months after the bite, the CDC says, and can include:

  • Severe headaches;
  • Neck stiffness;
  • Additional rashes on other parts of the body;
  • Arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling, often in the knees;
  • Facial or Bell’s palsy;
  • Muscle and joint pain that comes and goes;
  • Heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat;
  • Dizziness or shortness of breath;
  • Nerve pain;
  • Shooting pains, numbness, or tingling in the hands or feet; and
  • Problems with short-term memory.

Lyme Disease in the US

For years, medical practitioners and the public have been told that Lyme disease is rare to nonexistent in certain parts of our country, including the Southeast part of the US. However, recent evidence shows that Lyme has tripled in the United States over the last 2 decades. If diagnosed early—a rash (often shaped like a bullseye) commonly appears around the site of the tick bite—Lyme can be effectively treated with antibiotics, but longer term infections can produce more serious symptoms.

Called “The Great Imitator,” Lyme disease is often mistaken for illnesses such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), Parkinson’s, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s. The symptoms mimic some of the symptoms of these diseases leading to misdiagnosis, as was the case with Kris Kristofferson and his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Testing for Lyme

According to LymeDisease.org, Lyme is a clinical diagnosis—based on your medical history, symptoms, and exposure to ticks. Sometimes, people who have Lyme disease can test negative for it until their body builds up antibodies. People who don’t have it can also test positive for other reasons, including autoimmune disorders, which is why the CDC recommends a two-tier testing process.

Two-tiered testing uses two tests. The first is a screening test that should detect anyone who might have the disease. This test is followed by a second test that is intended to make sure that only people with the disease are diagnosed. Read more about Lyme testing here.

In the situation with Kris Kristofferson, his wife believes that the singer must have been infected with Lyme disease by a tick bite when he was in Vermont, crawling around the woods while filming the movie “Disappearances,” which was released in 2006. The change in diagnosis – and treatment – has made a huge difference in his day-to-day life, as well as his career. After he was treated, the singer, who turned 80 last year, traveled to Canada to record with fellow legends Gordon Lightfoot and Ronnie Hawkins, and also played the lead in the movie “Traded,” which was released last June.

What if it Really is Alzheimer’s?

It would be amazing if a lot of the cases of Alzheimer’s turned out to be Lyme, and could be cured. Lyme isn’t easy to live with, but it’s much more treatable than Alzheimer’s, especially if it’s caught early. If you think your mother’s memory loss symptoms could be Lyme, since she may have had exposure to ticks, it doesn’t hurt to check with your doctor and for her to get tested.

Whether she has Alzheimer’s, Lyme, or something else, it is important for everyone to plan for the future, but legal plans are especially important for a person with Alzheimer’s disease. The sooner planning starts, the more the person with dementia may be able to participate.

At The Law Firm of Evan H. Farr, P.C., we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from Alzheimer’s and their loved ones.  We help protect the family’s assets while maintaining your loved one’s quality of life, comfort and dignity, by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. Please call us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation:

Fairfax Alzheimer’s Planning: 703-691-1888

Fredericksburg Alzheimer’s Planning: 540-479-1435

Rockville Alzheimer’s Planning: 301-519-8041

DC Alzheimer’s Planning: 202-587-2797

Leave a comment