Korean eunuchs — what can they tell us about men’s health?

Monday, October 22nd, 2012 |

Current Biology is not a journal I regularly read. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it until last week. But I followed up a reference to what turned out to be a fascinating article on the lifespan of 81 eunuchs in the Imperial Court of the Korean Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910). This might seem an esoteric subject, but only at first sight.

The authors found that the average lifespan of the eunuchs was 70 years. The authors compared the lifespan of eunuchs with that of men from three non-eunuch families of similar social status, who lived during the same time periods. The average lifespan of the non-eunuchs ranged from 51 to 56 years. They also looked at the average lifespan of kings and other male royal family members — these were 47 and 45 years respectively.

The seemingly huge impact of testosterone on male longevity set me thinking again about the role of biology in explaining men’s poor health and whether men’s health activists have sought to minimise men’s innate frailties because of a (perfectly understandable) fear that others would use this as an excuse to do nothing.

Needless to say, we need far more research in this field to provide some definitive evidence. It’s not just about hormones either — also implicated are possible weaknesses in the XY chromosome and sex differences in iron levels. But at least one thing is clear, however: the solution to men’s health problems is definitely not a mass castration programme.

Kyung-Jin Min, et al, ‘The lifespan of Korean eunuchs’, Current Biology 2012:22(18). http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(12)00712-9

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