Former Vice President Dick Cheney recently received a heart transplant after suffering five heart attacks over the past 34 years. News of the successful operation prompted liberals to joke about how the new organ might affect his famously chilly personality. “Dick Cheney receives new, hopefully more empathetic heart,” read a headline on the blog Jezebel. “Maybe now he’ll become a Democrat,” suggested a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times. Could a heart transplant actually lead to a change of heart?
Yes, though it probably won’t turn a hawk into a dove. Heart transplants trigger a number of significant physiological and psychological changes, and the overall result depends on the individual. One of the most common effects is straightforward: A new lease on life tends to make people happier and more optimistic, sometimes to the point of temporary euphoria.
Patients with advanced heart failure often believe they have as little as a year or two left to live, and their daily activities may be restricted by their poor circulation. Studies suggest that more than one in five people with heart failure are clinically depressed. Successful transplant recipients can expect to live for a decade or more, depending on their age and overall health, and they tend to have more energy and can eat a wider range of foods. Better blood flow to the brain can also improve cognition. It’s not that the new heart comes with a new personality; it’s that having a functional heart can improve your outlook.
While a new heart is a good thing, the process of transplanting it might cause psychological problems in some patients. Any medical procedure for which the heart must be taken temporarily offline has the potential to cause short-term memory loss, cognitive decline, and transient depression — a condition that has been nicknamed “pumphead,” after the machine that takes over the patient’s cardiopulmonary functions in the operating room.
Doctors continue to debate exactly why this happens, but one theory is that it’s a product of reduced oxygen flow to the brain during surgery. It could also be the lingering result of a patient’s having his blood cells exposed to the foreign surfaces of the heart-lung machine.
There are a few anecdotes of heart transplant recipients taking on the personality traits of their donor, but there’s no scientific evidence to support the phenomenon.
Perhaps the best-known story is that of Claire Sylvia, a former professional dancer who received a heart from an 18-year-old boy who died in a motorcycle accident. In a book called “A Change of Heart,” Sylvia reported that she started craving beer and KFC fried chicken after the surgery — things that the donor had also enjoyed. While a few researchers have posited that such traits could somehow be transmitted along with the donor’s cells, mainstream cardiologists dismiss that idea. A transplant recipient might start to enjoy foods that she wasn’t able to eat before the surgery, but any similarities to the donor’s tastes would be a coincidence.
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Explainer thanks Lawrence Czer of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute and Joseph Rogers of Duke University.