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Kris Kristofferson’s 'Dementia' Was Lyme Disease

After long suspecting Alzheimer's, doctors did a test

By Emily Gurnon

For years, songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson was told he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or some other type of dementia. His memory was getting progressively worse.

But Kristofferson, 79, has revealed that he was misdiagnosed — he actually has Lyme disease, according to a June 6, 2016  story in Rolling Stone. A positive test result confirmed the hunch earlier this year, the magazine said.

"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.”

Lasting Effects Possible

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, 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 (CDC).

Other cognitive problems that can occur after months or even years include, according to the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center of Columbia University Medical Center:

  • problems remembering names or words
  • slowed thinking
  • “brain fog”
  • difficulty following conversations.

"My brain is so destroyed. To me it's amazing I can still get up and go to the show,” Kristofferson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal late in 2015. “But I can remember all the songs.”

The tiny arachnids are found in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, north-central and Pacific Coast areas of the United States, the CDC says.

The disease may reveal itself within 30 days in a characteristic “bull’s-eye” rash, but some people never get a rash. And since most bites come from the immature form of the tick, which is about the size of a poppy seed, the incursion can easily go unnoticed.

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.”

Ongoing Controversy

The medical establishment has been at odds for years, however, with critics who believe that Lyme is vastly under-diagnosed and under-treated. There is fierce disagreement about how reliable testing methods are and even what to call a lasting illness.

“The term ‘chronic Lyme disease’ (CLD) has been used to describe people with different illnesses,” the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases says on its website. “While the term is sometimes used to describe illness in patients with Lyme disease, in many occasions it has been used to describe symptoms in people who have no evidence of a current or past infection with [the Lyme bacterium].

“Because of the confusion in how the term CLD is employed, experts in this field do not support its use,” the agency says.

That angers those who say conventional doctors ignored their complaints.


“Many of these patients say that medical officials pay little attention to their persisting symptoms, and that Lyme disease is anything but easy to treat or to cure,” wrote Michael Specter in a 2013 article in The New Yorker magazine.

Complicating the matter is the fact that the same ticks that carry Lyme disease may pass along other harmful bacteria, as well. (Cases of babesiosis, for example, have been found in people also infected with Lyme.)

Early Signs and Symptoms

These 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

These may be experienced weeks or months after the bite, the CDC says:

  • 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 (Lyme carditis)
  • Dizziness or shortness of breath
  • Nerve pain
  • Shooting pains, numbness, or tingling in the hands or feet
  • Problems with short-term memory

Prevention Is Key

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. And carefully inspect yourself for ticks after hiking, camping or being in the backyard if it’s close to a wooded area.

Emily Gurnon
Emily Gurnon is the former Senior Content Editor covering health and caregiving for Next Avenue. Her stories include a series of articles on guardianship abuse that was funded by the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program. She previously spent 20 years as an award-winning newspaper reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area and St. Paul. Reach her through her website. Read More
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