Attention, Men: Live to 100, With One Horrible Trade-off

This mural of a group of eunuchs was found on the tomb of the Chinese prince Zhanghuai who died in 706 C.E. A study showed that eunuchs lived longer than non-eunuchs. Wikimedia Commons

Good news, gentlemen! A team of Korean biologists has discovered a surefire way to increase your longevity by a decade or more. All you have to do is lop off your gonads. Yup, a simple surgical castration may be just what the doctor ordered (if so, we strongly encourage a second opinion) to reverse the potentially damaging health effects of testosterone. 

The Korean study, first published in 2012 in the journal Current Biology, analyzed the genealogical records of a long line of eunuchs serving the imperial court of the Chosun dynasty in Korea from 1392 to 1910. 

From the records — the only known example of a “eunuch family history” — researchers extracted detailed birth and death data on 81 court eunuchs who enjoyed an average lifespan of 70 years. The lifespan of non-eunuchs of the same socioeconomic class during that same time period ranged from 50.9 to 55.6 years. That's nearly a 15- to 20-year difference! 

First question: How can eunuchs have a family history? Unlike court eunuchs in nearby China, Korean eunuchs were allowed to marry and adopt children, but only girls and castrated boys. Since court eunuchs enjoyed many economic and social advantages, some boys willingly underwent castration in order to join their ranks. 

Second question: Are these numbers even reliable? Dr. Steven Austad, who studies the biology of aging at the University of Alabama Birmingham, admits that he was “skeptical” when he first read the results of the Korean study. 

“What really caught my attention was the claim that three of the eunuchs had reached 100 years or more,” says Austad. “That's several times the centenarian rate of modern Japanese men.” 

But even with the normal errors associated with old data, Austad finds the results “provocative.” Mostly because they echo the longevity gap found in nature between castrated and non-castrated animals, plus they confirm a 1960s study of castrated mental patients who also far outlived their intact peers.

So what's the takeaway? Since the testicles produce the vast majority of testosterone, castrated males have extremely low testosterone levels. Does that mean testosterone is bad for your health? 

“There is good evidence that female reproductive hormones can boost the immune system and male reproductive hormones can suppress it,” says Austad. And there also appears to be a link between testosterone and cardiovascular health. Men, for example, tend to have heart attacks at much younger ages than women, which is one of the many reasons why women consistently outlive men. 

In fact, explains Austad, women die of every major disease and illness an average of three to five years later than men. 

“This is true across every culture and socioeconomic level,” says Austad. “It's not just heart disease that kills men earlier, but everything from flu to cancer to lung disease. The data is incredibly robust.” 

What does this mean for aging men? Should they be lining up for estrogen therapy alongside their menopausal wives? Not quite. 

“But if I were thinking about taking testosterone supplements,” Austad says, citing the widespread popular of the “vitality” drugs, “I would certainly hesitate. Unless I didn't care how long I lived.”