Ask Your Doctor: Is Castration Right for You?

I came across a book on Amazon the other day, “Castration: The Advantages and the Disadvantages,” by Victor T. Cheney. I have to admit I initially found it hilarious. Between my social conditioning, the slightly humorous reviews, the fact that Amazon makes it very clear that the item is available for gift wrap, it made me laugh.

But, as I took a closer look, it seems to be offered in earnest; it is a topic of interest for the author because he had to undergo castration as part of a treatment for his prostate cancer. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the book makes a scientific claim, i.e., castration tends to prolong life.

Up to this point, the only scientific claim I’ve ever seen for prolonging life is calorie restriction. “Calorie restriction (CR) extends life span and retards age-related chronic diseases in a variety of species, including rats, mice, fish, flies, worms, and yeast.” But, the trouble is this: “Whether prolonged CR increases life span (or improves biomarkers of aging) in humans is unknown. In experiments of nature, humans have been subjected to periods of nonvolitional partial starvation. However, the diets in almost all of these cases have been of poor quality. The absence of adequate information on the effects of good-quality, calorie-restricted diets in nonobese humans reflects the difficulties involved in conducting long-term studies in an environment so conducive to overfeeding.”[1]

There is a similar problem with castration. There is evidence that castrated dogs live longer:

“The initial dataset contained 80,958 records of dog death. When juvenile dogs and those with unknown sterilization status were removed there were 70,574 FC dogs, representing 185 breeds. The average number of diagnoses recorded per dog was 2.9 (range 1-32). Overall, 30,770 (43.6%) dogs were intact and 39,804 (56.4%) dogs were sterilized at the time of death. The mean age of death for intact dogs was 7.9 years versus 9.4 years for sterilized dogs.[2]”

One and a half years is a ~19% increase. If we assume a similar increase in humans over the current average life expectancy of ~75 years for U.S. men, this would be an additional 14 years of life.

There is evidence that supports this level of additional life expectancy:

“To examine the effects of castration on longevity, we analyzed the lifespan of historical Korean eunuchs. Korean eunuchs preserved their lineage by adopting castrated boys. We studied the genealogy records of Korean eunuchs and determined the lifespan of 81 eunuchs. The average lifespan of eunuchs was 70.0 ± 1.76 years, which was 14.4-19.1 years longer than the lifespan of non-castrated men of similar socio-economic status. Our study supports the idea that male sex hormones decrease the lifespan of men.”[3]

But, it’s not conclusive. One obvious problem with the Korean eunuch data is we would need to know whether castration provides a longevity benefit when average life expectancy has increased to current levels.

So, does castration lengthen the lifespan of human males? Is it a testable hypothesis? Presumably, it is possible to collect data on lifespans of people that have been castrated for one reason or another via a national health database and if the set was large enough, to statistically control for the effects of cancer, madness and other factors on lifespan. Still, it wouldn’t be conclusive.

Testing this hypothesis would require a sufficiently large study of male volunteers willing to undergo castration in order to further our knowledge of its impact on lifespan. But, this seems impossible. Who would do it? How would make sure that this was a freely elected decision? Could an experiment of this sort even make it through an Institutional Review Board, even in the unlikely scenario where you found an academic researcher willing to stake their career on a study such as this? Is even considering a study like this ethical?

In the end, it is extremely unlikely there will be a definitive study on castration, with an infinitesimally small chance of it happening in my lifetime. So, I’ll never know for certain whether castration would improve my chances of living longer. But, the evidence seems to suggest that it an option worth considering. If I were to go to my doctor and ask whether castration is right for me, what do you think the chances she’ll refer me to a good psychiatrist rather than a good surgeon?

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