Can Personality Change After Heart Surgery?


One of the ways science-based couples therapists are different is that we stay current with research that impacts relationships. Some of this research may, at first, seem pretty far-afield from conventional couples therapy topics. Recently I updated my post about personality changes after bariatric surgery.

But can someone’s personality change after heart surgery as well?

Alan and Candace

Alan, a retiring CEO, and Candace, (not their real names) had been in couples therapy for about 5 months when Alan had a sudden massive heart attack. Soon after, he had open-heart surgery. That was 4 years ago. Alan is 67 today.

“I had a great surgeon”, Alan said, “and he assured me that the procedure went flawlessly. My physical recovery was pretty quick.” Candace leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “But I knew something was wrong with Alan.” 

Alan also leaned forward. “Candy saw it before I did… well, to be fair, I saw it too, but I didn’t want to worry her. It was obvious that I had mood swings. I was depressed and irritable…”

Candace interrupted. “We were on an emotional rollercoaster for 7 months. But when you finally told me about your nightmares, we went back to your cardiologist, and I told him… something just wasn’t right with Alan.”

But even now, 4 years later, Alan and Candace have a new topic to bring into their couples therapy with me; managing the cognitive and personality changes after Alan’s triple-bypass.

Pumphead…Or Personality Change?

For nearly 50 years, there has been anecdotal evidence that open-heart surgery has an impact on personality and cognitive function.

As recently as 2014, the medical establishment has conceded that after recovery from heart surgery, some patients experience a temporary cognitive impairment of memory, processing speed, and focus.

While Alan was recovering, he also reported trouble remembering, and concentrating. This cognitive fog is nicknamedPumphead,” and was long believed to be a temporary aftereffect from the trauma of open-heart surgery.

However, new research suggests that the “Pumphead Effect” may have long-lasting negative impacts.

Where Does the Pumphead Effect Come From?

Coronary surgery was transformed in 1953 when the heart-lung machine was first introduced.

Doctors could now operate on the heart for an hour or more, where previous methods only allowed 15 minutes.

Cardiac surgeons quickly became aware of the phenomenon of post-surgery cognitive decline, but they saw the surgery, and not the technology as the culprit.

Not on Their Radar…

And any notion of personality change after heart surgery wasn’t on their radar. However, more recent longitudinal research suggests that cognitive decline and personality changes after heart surgery persist over time.

While the science is complex, researchers are now persuaded that the primary cause of the “Pumphead Effect” is the capillary blockage (called emboli) produced during surgery from the manipulation of the aorta by the heart-lung machine.

Personality Change from Particles in the Blood?

The heart-lung machine extends the surgical time by pumping blood to keep the patient alive. During open-heart surgery, the pumping action of the heart is stopped.

We now have reason to believe that this mechanical pumping action introduces tiny pieces of plastic debris, fat particles, and toxic gases into the bloodstream. Unfortunately, once in the bloodstream, these particles migrate to the brain.

The problem is that these particles begin to clog small blood vessels, decreasing the amount of blood and oxygen from flowing to the brain. Unfortunately, all open-heart surgery patients experience some degree of this blockage during surgery, and for many, the damage is irreversible.

Is Pumphead Permanent or Temporary?

The more dramatic symptoms of the “Pumphead Effect,” are usually short-lived.

This has led doctors to advise their patients that the cognitive impact is merely temporary.

A recent study of bypass patients has indicated that these cognitive challenges may worsen over time, despite assurances that cardiac surgery has no detectable impact on how the brain functions.

Skepticism for a Subjective Experience

The issue of personality change after open-heart surgery was met with more skepticism by the medical establishment, perhaps because changes in personality can be a subjective experience. But as in bariatric surgery, attention to a patient’s physical recovery often eclipses their need for emotional support.

To date, no study has adequately examined whether heart surgery can change personality, mainly because personality changes are too difficult to define and measure.

New Research Offers New Insight on the “Cardiac Blues”


We now know that nearly 80% of these patients experienced some flashes of anger, tearful sadness, anxiety, depression, and sometimes frequent nightmares.

I learned a lot about Alan and Candace during their assessment when they returned to intensive couples therapy:

“I knew something was profoundly different about Alan,” Candy said. “Alan was a highly decorated member of the Special Forces. He served 3 tours in Vietnam, breezed through Harvard Business School, and ended his career as a respected business leader. I have never seen him anxious or depressed. It was alarming.”

Depression is a Familiar Problem in Couples Therapy

About 1 in 20 Americans suffer from clinical depression, but over 40% of couples in therapy have at least one clinically depressed spouse.

New research tells us that 20% of emergency cardiac patients like Alan experience clinical depression. This is significantly higher than the general population.

The early weeks of post-surgical recovery often reveal significant cognitive, behavioral, and emotional changes.

But over the ensuing months of recovery, Alan and Candy saw Alan’s personality change after his heart surgery as the most problematic and bewildering issue they’d ever faced in their 42 years of marriage.

Significant…and Unexpected

This is where a good, science-based couples therapist comes in.

The problem is that these couples get excellent transparency on all of the medical aspects of recovery from sudden cardiac surgery. Still, they are often blind-sided by emotional and mental changes.

Sudden cardiac surgery can be a heavy burden for a committed couple. Unlike bariatric surgery, heart surgery is not always a planned-for, elective procedure. Many surgical centers offer faint direction about the marital implications of bariatric surgery, as a result, few couples engage in pre-surgical counseling.

But couples grappling with open-heart surgery are suddenly dealing with life and death issues. What are the Couples Therapy implications for cognitive impairment and personality change after open-heart surgery?

Emotional and Mental Feedback Loops

There is a feedback loop between the recovering cardiovascular system and the onset of clinical depression. But there are many other emotional feedback loops that can be acutely pressured by open-heart surgery.

A research project undertaken in 2015 was published in Australian Family Physician. It showed that while over 80% of the 160 patients interviewed at two area hospitals would like to have received information about the ‘cardiac blues’, only a few couples ever received it.

Alan’s Story

“I had just nominated my successor to the board when I had the heart attack. My first thoughts upon waking up concerned a small political dust-up with a large investor. It was 20 minutes before I knew what happened and how my life had changed.”
Alan described getting the cardiac blues pretty hard. “I would have nightmares about the evacuation of Saigon. I was in a helicopter looking down on a shrinking sea of faces. One of them was mine. I felt that I was leaving my soul behind.” Alan stiffened and he straightened his back. “I felt I had to get back to work. I had to finish what I had started. Then …suddenly…I felt an enormous sense of dread that my only legacy was the sure financial footing and steady stewardship of a sneaker company.”

Can Couples Therapists Help to Normalize and Reassure?

Barbara M Murphy, Ph.D. is the Director of Research at the Heart Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia. Dr. Murphy is the leading thought leader on personality changes after heart surgery.

Her goal is to bring awareness of personality changes after heart surgery into more public discourse. Here’s what she had to say about men like Alan:

About four out of five patients do experience the cardiac blues, and what we want to do is normalize it and reassure patients that it is likely to resolve in the first few months.

The heart event isn’t just a physical event, it’s an emotional event as well, and these things are likely to happen. However, in some cases the symptoms do not resolve and can develop into full-blown depression. Barbara M. Murphy Ph.D.

How a United States President Navigated Personality Change After Heart Surgery

Whatever your politics, it’s easy to admit that President Bill Clinton had significant social skills. But Bill Clinton has appeared significantly out of character in the speeches and interviews that I’ve watched since his bypass surgery in September of 2004.

President Clinton managed an impeachment, numerous sex scandals, and the #Me Too Movement with his reputation largely intact.

But the Bill Clinton I saw in 2008 was noticeably irritated by hecklers, and sometimes said unfortunate and regrettable thinks in support of his wife’s failed presidential bid.

What struck me was the relative silence within the medical community. President Clinton was exhibiting an acute personality change after his open-heart surgery…but hardly anyone qualified to comment was talking about it.

Cognitive Decline is a Hot Potato


It’s ironic what a hot potato bypass surgery cognitive dysfunction can be.

One of the best-kept secrets in medicine is the brain damage caused by bypass surgery.

It’s not uncommon for surgeons to field questions about uncharacteristic outbursts of anger post-surgery.

Here’s a startling truth. Medical Journals have been reporting on personality changes after open-heart surgery since 1969.

If the medical profession is reluctant to discuss this issue in-depth, perhaps couples therapists might start the conversation instead.

Reduced Mental Capacity?

In 2001, an article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine reported that 5-years after bypass surgery 42% of patients showed a measurable decline in mental function of approximately 20 percent or more.

Another study published in 2008 in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery used MRI testing just after bypass surgery. Their shocking finding was that 51% had a measurable degree of brain damage.

What kind of Cognitive Decline? What Kind of Personality Change?

Another study followed cardiac patients 3 years after their encounter with a heart-lung machine.

The cognitive decline found in 31% of the patients was described as “significant.” Specifically, dates, names, and numbers elude them. These patients are also experiencing mood swings and serious depression. In 30% of cases, they have even contemplated suicide.

Open heart surgery is also an expensive event. It’s performed about a half-million times every year at a cost of around 100K or more. We can do better in helping couples to manage the emotional aftermath.

The 3 Skills Needed to Manage Personality Change After Heart Surgery

For years, the medical establishment claimed that evidence did not support the notion that permanent changes in cognitive ability or mood occur after cardiac surgery.

Dr. Murphy argues that just because no research has directly looked at personality changes after open-heart surgery, we can’t rule out the idea that such deficits are taking place on a smaller scale.

Science-based couples therapy can help these couples with 3 specific interventions:

  • Regulation and Co-Regulation

Regulation and co-regulation are skills we teach in science-based couples therapy. It describes being open to continuous influence by your partner in the service of collaborative emotional regulation.

For everybody, a stable, trusting relationship is linked to relatively high survival rates from cardiovascular disease, cancer, surgery, and other illnesses. Love increases the odds of living a long life and having good health.
High trust partners benefit each other by ‘co-regulating’ their physiologies. Put simply, they calm each other when they are unable to calm themselves. John Gottman.
  • Repair Early and Repair Often

I told Alan “The partner in your wife’s head is being updated. Candy’s asking you for an emotional availability upgrade, and I know you can do it. Discuss the likelihood that you will be irritable and challenging to live with at times. Couples therapy can help you both to repair more quickly, and learn how to take time outs when needed. Another thing. Consider externalizing the Cardiac Blues and the personality changes that you might be inflicting on Candy.”

Candace liked that idea. She told Alan that the “Cardiac Blues” were the herald of the “Cardiac Bear.”

And that became a special “couple code” between them. Alan and Candace continued their intensive couples therapy online.

They discussed the arc of his recovery and their real-life situations with me in couples therapy. We even used pulse oximeters to keep their nervous systems in check during these sessions.

  • Dreams Within Conflict for Personality Change After Heart Surgery

personality-change-after-open-heart-surgeryResearch on long-term committed relationships tells us that some relationship conflicts are solvable and some are perpetual. That was true for all couples.

Dealing with personality change after open-heart surgery was clearly a new, but Perpetual Problem for Alan and Candace.

Perpetual differences are fundamental differences in personality, even sudden ones,  that may resist change over time.

The Dreams Within Conflict Intervention taught Alan and Candace a new way of discussing their differences.

Happy couples learn how to have a dialogue about their perpetual differences. But unhappy couples, more often, become emotionally gridlocked.

Finding Understanding and Compassion

In “The Dream Within Conflict” exercise, Alan and Candace learned how to have Generative Conversations. They handled their new perpetual problems in a more positive way, that deepened their mutual understanding and compassion. This was a lot easier on their nervous systems.

“When you first explained Dreams Within Conflict to me, you almost lost me, Daniel. It seemed a bit woo-woo for my taste. But I like how you explained it. I didn’t have to fix anything. 

It was like coming out of the bush. Once I started paying attention to what I was feeling or thinking, I didn’t worry so much about it.

Something in me shifted. I mean, I’ve been married to Candy for over 40 years. If I can’t tell her how scared and helpless I felt…who could I tell?” Alan.

Final Thoughts

Illness is a significant stressor in long term marriage, but the quality of the intimate bond can be a powerful support in recovery. Science-based couples therapy for couples struggling in the aftermath of open-heart surgery can make the difference between a speedy recovery or an equally precipitous decline.

Couples need good psychoeducation around what to expect in the weeks and months after a sudden open-heart surgery.

While personality change after open-heart surgery and cognitive challenges may be of concern, Gottman Couples Therapy can help each partner to be their best selves under difficult and challenging circumstances.


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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. This is a wonderful article. More people need to be aware of the risk of depression following open heart surgery so they and their loved ones can prepare for it. If people recognize they have depression then treatment can be given. I was just reading an old article in the NYT about Robin Williams and his open heart surgery in 2009. Although he had a previous history of drug abuse and diagnosis of Parkinson’s, the doctors being interviewed felt there was a link between his open heart surgery and the development of depression. They went on to say some patients have cognitive changes as this article points out, and others developed PTDS.

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