The Tragedy Of Kris Kristofferson Explained

In 2013, doctors told the musician, songwriter, and actor Kris Kristofferson the bad news. They believed he had Alzheimer's disease or a related form of dementia. The Grammy winner, then in his 70s, had been having debilitating memory problems. He even began to write a song about it. "I see an empty chair / Someone was sitting there / I've got a feeling it was me / And I see a glass of wine / I'm pretty sure it's mine," the unrecorded song began.

His friends also took notice of the singer-songwriter's declining mental acuity. "For the past six or seven years, there was this slow realization that he was becoming forgetful," Kristofferson's longtime friend and fellow musician Chris Gantry told Closer in 2016. "It was apparent. Kris alluded to it because he knew something was up. We all thought it was Alzheimer's or dementia from old age." But what doctors thought was dementia turned out to be the tick-borne bacterial illness Lyme disease. Kristofferson's medical treatment has reversed many of his symptoms.

From janitor to superstar

The legendary singer-songwriter and actor was born Kris Kristofferson in Brownsville, Texas in 1936. He came from a long line of military men and it appeared he too would follow the same path. After becoming a prestigious Rhodes Scholar, which allowed him to study at Oxford University in England, he joined the U.S. Army, where he was a helicopter pilot. He achieved the rank of captain before dropping out of the military to pursue his dream of being a full-time musician. It was a hard road, made harder after his family disowned him and he held a series of low-paying jobs — including being a janitor at CBS Records in Nashville. But Kristofferson eventually hit it big as a songwriter.

Everyone from Johnny Cash to Janice Joplin rode to the top of the charts with Kristofferson's songs and by the early 1970s so had he. Hollywood soon came calling and Kristofferson earned a Golden Globe for his role in "A Star is Born." Besides a slew of hit records and film roles, he was part of the supergroup the Highwaymen, considered one of the best in history, with Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. But by the early 2000s, Kristofferson's health issues began to pile up.


Kris Kristofferson's medical issues began at the dawn of the 21st century. In 1999, he had triple bypass surgery. Then, following a role in the 2006 film "Disappearances," which was filmed in the Vermont woods, doctors diagnosed him with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder. Lisa Kristofferson, the singer's wife of more than 40 years, told Lyme Times in 2016 that the actor was experiencing "massive, painful spasms all over his back and legs.

"He had painful knees and annual knee shots, a pacemaker for arrhythmias — which we now know could be from Lyme — so much Advil for headaches that he got anemic," she recalled. Then came the worsening memory problems and the misdiagnosis of Alzheimer's. "He was taking all these medications for things he doesn't have, and they all have side effects," Lisa Kristofferson told Rolling Stone in 2016. Finally, in February 2016, an integrative doctor, suspecting Lyme disease, tested the singer for the illness, which came back positive.

A devastating disease

Tick bites can transmit borrelia bacteria, which causes Lyme disease. The disease often begins with a telltale bull's eye rash at the site of the tick bite. But the rash doesn't always appear, meaning the victim might not even realize they've been infected, as was the case with Kris Kristofferson. If left untreated, the disease can cause symptoms including arrhythmia, muscle weakness, swelling of the joints, headaches, and other problems.

Further, Lyme disease can cause neurological problems. "Cognitive deficits may include poor memory, slower speed of thinking, difficulty with word retrieval, and impaired fine motor control," according to the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. In 2022 (the latest figures available) the CDC reported 63,000 cases of Lyme disease in the country, but the true numbers may be closer to as many as 476,000 cases per year. Thankfully, antibiotics and other treatments can combat the illness.

The good news

In Kris Kristofferson's case, his medical treatment included antibiotics and other measures that helped reverse many of his symptoms, although he still has some memory loss. "Kris is as sharp as he's been in the past 20 years because of his treatments," an unnamed friend of the musician told Closer in 2016. "His wife, Lisa, and his eight children see a different Kris now. It really is a modern-day medical miracle."

Chris Gantry also saw the stark difference between the singer before and after his treatment for Lyme disease. "It's like Lazarus coming out of the grave and being born again," he said. Back in 2016, before returning to touring, Kristofferson began revisiting his old music to help sharpen his memory. "Thankfully I haven't lost the songs," he told Closer in 2021. The singer-songwriter went back on tour before officially retiring during the COVID-19 pandemic.


After retiring in 2021, Kris Kristofferson settled down to retirement at his home in Maui, where he spends his time, among other pursuits, doing yard work. "I got a lot of lawn to mow!" he told Closer that year. "I want to stay right where I am, which is on an island with no neighbors and 180 degrees of empty horizon. It's a beautiful view." His retirement was unrelated to his previous medical issues. "His health is good," his manager, Tamara Saviano, said. "He's enjoying time with his family."

Now 87, Kristofferson has slowed down. "Kris didn't feel he was up to touring anymore," an unnamed friend told Radar in September 2023. "Now, he just wants to make things easier for his family by turning his holdings into cash that will go to them when he's gone." In August 2023, he listed his Mendocino, California ranch for $17.2 million. The sale, if and when it happens, would add to Kris Kristofferson's already impressive net worth of an estimated $50 million.