Home > Causes of dementia, Medical issues > Lyme Disease and Dementia

Lyme Disease and Dementia

Image courtesy David Castillo Dominici @ http://www.freedigitalphotos.net(I remember being in high school and college about the time that Lyme disease was first being talked about, and I recall the concern felt by those who lived and/or worked in the countryside.  My family had horses, and our dogs ran about in fields where horses were kept, and we were always careful to inspect them regularly for ticks.  I was interested recently to read an article which referred to the possibility of Lyme disease producing mental changes and symptoms similar to dementia in its later stages, if not found and treated early enough.  This prompted me to do a little research on the subject, and I’d like to share some of that research with my readers.  What I found is that Lyme disease falls in the category of preventable health conditions that can mimic dementia, and may be misdiagnosed as such if not caught early enough.)

Lyme disease is the most common tick-borne infection in Europe and North America.  It is transmitted by ticks, which can spread the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi as they feed on the blood of humans and animals.    The symptoms of Lyme disease vary from a mild rash to a more serious illness affecting the skin, joints, and nervous system.

The disease was first recognized in 1975 after unusually large numbers of children in and around Lyme, Connecticut, were found to have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.  Most of the affected children lived in wooded areas, where ticks were likely to be found, and symptoms most often started in the summer months when ticks were most plentiful.  Researchers discovered that only “deer ticks” were found to spread the disease; the more common “wood ticks” and “dog ticks” did not carry the infection.

There has been an increase in the number of reported Lyme disease cases in the U.S., with it now being reported in most states apart from Alaska and Hawaii.  However, it appears to be more heavily concentrated in the coastal northeast, the Mid-Atlantic states, the northern Midwest, and California.  States with especially heavy concentrations of ticks include New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  It is also common in large areas of Europe and Asia, and is now also being reported in South America.  Animals that have been found to carry the deer tick include mice, raccoons, skunks, opossums, weasels, foxes, shrews, moles, chipmunks, squirrels, deer, and horses.

Persons who are in the early stages of Lyme disease may show symptoms similar to the flu and other viral infections — a stiff neck, fever, chills, swollen lymph  nodes, headaches and muscle aches, fatigue, and joint pain.  There may be a rash around the original tick bite which gets larger with time.  These will usually resolve over the course of a few days or weeks.  A rash may also develop on other areas of the body as well.

If not treated with antibiotics, a little over half of those infected with Lyme disease will show symptoms of arthritis, painful and swollen joints that can last from a few days to a few months.  While the knees are most commonly affected, symptoms can affect many different joints — either singly or in combination.  A small number of these people (approximately 10 to 20%) will develop lasting arthritis as a result of these symptoms.

The nervous system can also be affected.  Symptoms such as a stiff neck and severe headache, such as that seen in meningitis, Bell’s palsy (a temporary paralysis of facial muscles), pain and numbness/weakness in the limbs, and poor coordination.  There may also be memory loss, difficulty with concentration, mood changes, and difficulty sleeping.  These symptoms can develop up to years after the original infection, especially if it went untreated, and may last for weeks or months or may recur.  If treated with antibiotics, these symptoms will usually resolve completely.

Other symptoms can occur with less frequency.  These can include heart problems, such as a slow and/or irregular heartbeat, inflammation of the eye, liver inflammation or hepatitis, and fatigue.  Lyme disease can mimic a number of diseases, and can vary significantly from person to person.  A complicating factor is that many persons don’t have any memory of having been bitten by a tick, as these creatures are tiny and their bite is usually painless.  This makes it all the more important for a person to consult with their physician upon noticing early symptoms, to enable a precise diagnosis to be made.

Diagnosis of Lyme disease is made easier upon noting the presence of a characteristic “bull’s-eye rash” around the point of the tick bite.  However, if this rash is not visible, the physician can order a blood test three to four weeks after the onset of symptoms, to test for the presence of specific antibodies, formed as the body tries to fight off the bacteria.  The bacterium responsible for Lyme disease is quite difficult to isolate, however.  (It should also be noted that these antibodies will not typically be present in the patient’s bloodstream for the first few weeks following the infection, and antibiotics given to the patient in this initial period may prevent the development of antibodies altogether.)

A spinal tap may prove beneficial in the diagnosis of patients experiencing neurological symptoms.  In this way, doctors can look for inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, and also whether antibodies are present in the cerebrospinal fluid.

Lyme disease can be effectively treated by antibiotics, if this regimen is started soon after the original infection.  The use of oral antibiotics for two to four weeks can aid in the healing of the rash, and may prevent the development of subsequent symptoms.  However, evidence suggests that treatment with antibiotics beyond this time frame may not only be ineffective, but may actually produce harmful side effects.  In more severe cases, and particularly with patients who show neurological symptoms, the use of intravenous antibiotics has been shown to be helpful, with most patients experiencing a complete recovery.

Some persons who have been treated for Lyme disease continue to show fatigue and body aches, but these will usually diminish over time without additional treatment.  Some have suggested that a person with Lyme disease may develop chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia, but this has not been proven.

There is an alternative medicine that is prescribed by some practitioners, called Bismacine (chromacine), that is made with high levels of the metal bismuth.  It is injected under the skin.  However, the Food and Drug Administration warns against the use of this preparation for the treatment of Lyme disease, as it can cause bismuth poisoning and can lead to heart and kidney failure.

The easiest way to prevent Lyme disease is to avoid the ticks associated with it.  They can be found with particular frequency in wooded areas and the nearby grasslands, however they rarely survive for long on sunny lawns.  The late spring, summer, and early fall months are times when they are most frequently encountered.  Some other ways to avoid tick bites include:

1.  Wearing long sleeve shirts and long pants made of tightly woven clothing, to make it harder for the ticks to gain access to your arms and legs.  Light-colored clothing makes it easier to see the ticks.

2.  Tuck your shirt into your pants, to prevent the ticks from climbing up onto your upper body.  You might also consider tucking your pants legs into your socks.

3.  Walk in the center of trails, when hiking through the woods, and avoid brushing up against grass and bushes.

4.  Keep the grass in your yard cut as short as possible.  Clear away brush and leaves, and keep wood-piles in sunny areas.

5.  Use a good tick repellent, applied to your skin and to your clothing.  However, be aware that some people — especially children — may be hypersensitive to the chemicals used in these repellants.

6.  Frequently check yourself and others, as well as your pets, for the presence of ticks — especially after spending time outside.

7.  Take a shower and wash your hair if you feel you have been exposed to ticks.

8.  As soon as you come inside, check your clothing for ticks, and wash them immediately.

9.  Don’t assume that you are immune from infection.  Even if you have had Lyme disease before, you can get it again.

If an infected tick does bite, removing it before it has had a chance to complete its meal will reduce its chances of spreading the infection — as long as 36 to 48 hours.  So, inspecting yourself for ticks and removing them immediately will greatly decrease any possibility of infection.  Lyme disease can be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her unborn child, or may put her at greater risk of miscarriage.

If someone is bitten by a tick, here are some good tips for removing it:

1.  Using tweezers, grasp the tick as close as possible to its head and tug gently but firmly until it releases its hold on the skin.

2.  Try not to handle the tick with your bare fingers, or crush its body, to avoid coming into contact with the bacterium.

3.  Use an antiseptic to swab and clean the area thoroughly.

4.  Refrain from using kerosene, Vaseline, fingernail polish, or a cigarette butt, to remove the tick.





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