There is a definite connection between Lyme disease and dementia, but the connection is not a straight path. For years, researchers have been trying to figure out single sources that lead to dementia, but what they are now finding is that a collection of sources more likely contributes to the disease.
Researchers are discovering that Lyme disease and its coinfections are sometimes misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s dementia. A recent example of this is with songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson, who was misdiagnosed for years and prescribed medications that caused side effects and did not improve his condition. A correct diagnosis has changed his life for the better.
Discovering the connection between Lyme disease and dementia starts with the basics.
What Causes Lyme Disease?
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transferred from a deer tick to a human. Deer ticks become infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium when they feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals. As young ticks, they feed on small animals, like rats, mice, moles, and rabbits. As they grow into adulthood, they search for larger animals, like deer, raccoons, and skunks.
They will also feed on a human when possible. Infected ticks may search a human’s body for more than a day to find the perfect spot. They don’t bite but crack open the skin and embed their head until they find blood. At that time, they transfer Lyme bacteria.
Borrelia burgdorferi quickly starts to multiply and eventually spreads to other body parts. The more time the body goes without antibiotic treatments, the harder it becomes to eliminate all the bacteria.
What Causes Dementia?
Dementia is a group of symptoms or a syndrome leading to brain changes or damage. More specifically, dementia occurs when nerve cells that connect to the brain are damaged or lost. Unlike Lyme disease, dementia can have multiple causes. For example:
- Alzheimer’s involves genetics and the buildup of proteins that cause tangles and clumps that damage a healthy brain.
- Vascular dementia is caused by damage to vessels that supply blood to the brain.
- Lewy body dementia is caused by balloon-like clumps of proteins called Lewy bodies found in the brain.
- Frontotemporal dementia is caused by the breakdown of nerve cells and their connections to the front temporal brain lobes.
A person can have one or multiple causes for dementia. They can be accompanied by disorders that damage or alter brain functioning, such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, HIV, brain trauma, and infections.
Symptoms of Lyme Disease
Lyme disease progresses in three stages: early localized, early disseminated, and late disseminated. If the infection reaches the third and chronic stage, the bacteria spread throughout the body and possibly into the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms of chronic Lyme disease include cognitive dysfunction, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, mental illness, confusion, disorganization, and getting lost. Someone can also have problems communicating and putting sentences together and struggle to process conversations.
Symptoms of Dementia
The symptoms of dementia greatly resemble those of Lyme disease. Dementia is a collection of symptoms that cause abnormal brain functioning. The symptoms include cognitive decline, memory loss, and forgetting things like appointment times, paying bills, directions, or names of people you should know. There are different types of dementia, like Alzheimer’s.
Someone with dementia usually has more than one factor contributing to brain damage and symptoms that interfere with your ability to function.
What About Lyme Dementia?
Lyme disease is one of the multiple causes of reversible dementia. Reversible dementia is a disease with symptoms that mimic dementia, but the symptoms improve and go away when given the right treatments. In Alzheimer’s dementia, symptoms are not reversible. Examples of reversible dementia include depression, hypothyroidism, normal pressure hydrocephalus, subdural hematomas, alcohol use disorder, stress, and vitamin deficiencies.
The Main Connector in Lyme Disease and Dementia
Borrelia burgdorferi is the culprit in spreading Lyme disease. It is categorized as a spirochete, a coil-shaped bacterium that can be hard to detect and eliminate due to its many ways to persist. Lyme spirochetes persist using the following:
Borrelia burgdorferi spirochetes are persistent. Lyme spirochete goes dormant at times to avoid detection and elimination. They switch from active to inactive status. Because they also become stronger, they are more capable of resisting antibiotic treatments. Even when a person is given tetracycline antibiotics, some spirochetes persist.
Biofilms are a group of slimy cells created by a spirochete to surround itself and act as a tiny shield, protecting itself from detection by the immune system and antibiotics. As more biofilms are created, a network is formed, hiding bacteria in your body.
Lipoproteins are made of fats and proteins typically known for carrying cholesterol through the blood to your cells. There are multiple types of lipoproteins. Normally, bacteria cannot synthesize lipoproteins. Borrelia burgdorferi, however, is one of the few that can acquire cholesterol and use it to their advantage. They essentially hijack the lipoproteins and use them like a shield that makes them undetectable to the immune system.
Controlling Lyme Disease and Dementia
There is not enough research or evidence connecting Lyme and Dementia. However, there are things you can do to reduce the risk of getting either one. To minimize the odds of developing dementia, you must make lifestyle changes, including the following:
- Keeping blood pressure regulated
- Quitting cigarettes and tobacco
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Becoming physically active
- Avoiding head injuries by wearing protection
- Challenging yourself cognitively
To prevent Lyme disease, you must protect yourself from deer ticks using the following tips:
- Wearing protective clothing, shoes, hats, etc.
- Spraying repellent on your clothes
- Spraying repellent on your pets that go outdoors
- Avoiding areas with thick grass and brush
- Performing tick checks on you and your pets
- Maintaining your lawn
Infections, including Lyme infection, can cause dementia. When left untreated, it changes how the brain functions and leads to neurological problems.