Triple-wide coffins designed for people as heavy as 700 pounds are becoming big sellers. Some cars are being equipped with seatbelt “extenders” to protect the portly. And airlines are starting to make larger passengers pay for two seats if they cant squeeze into one.

America is getting bigger every year and were not talking geography.

This weighty problem has real implications for life insurers, because how much someone weighs can have a big, albeit indirect, impact on his or her longevity. Even so, clients who have gained more than a few pounds since high schoolincluding older clientsare now finding it easier to buy life insurance at the cheapest rates possible. This article looks at both trends.

The percentage of Americans considered overweight or obese increased from 47% in 1980 to 64.5% in 1999, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey published by the National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, Md. Overweight and obese are measured by the body mass index (multiply body weight by 703, and then divide the result by the square of height in inches).

Earlier this year the U.S. Surgeon General declared obesity a national epidemic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed obesity as the No. 2 cause of preventable death.

Obesity is associated with a myriad of life-threatening diseases, including Type 2 Diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension and some forms of cancer. Type 2 Diabetes in particular is growing at an alarming rate. The combination of obesity and diabetes is expected soon to overtake tobacco use as the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States.

But, as noted above, life insurers actually are reducing rates for people of all ages, even those carrying some extra weight. How come? The answer lies in the overall improvement in mortality rates. Americans are living longereven though theyre getting bigger and becoming less healthy–because treatments and prevention have improved for many killer diseases.

In the past few years, improved mortality actually has enabled many life insurers to relax underwriting standards for those younger than 70.

New information from insurers experience, breakthroughs in the prevention and treatment of cancer and heart disease, and other medical advances have made it easier for people who are effectively treated for medical conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol or even minor skin cancers to buy life insurance with preferred rates.

Previously, applicants with such conditions would have had to pay extra for coverage or may even have been denied.

The 2001 Commissioner Standard Ordinary Table reflects todays longer life expectancies. Once adopted widely by state insurance departments, this Table is expected to bring about eventual reductions in life insurance rates averaging 5% to 6%, industrywide.

This is not to say that life insurers no longer consider weight a factor in pricing life insurance. The industry has been tracking the “fat factor” for decades and has been pricing accordingly. In fact, todays slimmed-down life insurance rates actually could become more waif-like, if Americans could learn to “just say no” to super-sized cheeseburgers and fries.

Interestingly enough, new medical knowledge and mortality experience confirm that weight remains a problem for nearly everyone except for one group: those older than 70. Many insurers actually are liberalizing weight standards for people ages 71-85 along with boosting acceptable levels for blood pressure and cholesterol readings.

In many instances, people in these categories still can qualify for preferred rates, saving them 5% to 20% off standard rates.

The fact is, a little extra weight or slightly higher readings for blood pressure or cholesterol do not significantly impact mortality for older people in good overall health. Improvements in medical diagnosis, and prevention and treatment, combined with life insurers own underwriting experience, are providing greater insight into health factors that affect mortality, especially in older people.

It is perfectly normal–and may even be healthier–to weigh 10 pounds more at age 75 than age 55. Unexplained weight loss is actually more of a concern for older people.

More good news is on the horizon. Within the next five to 10 years, advances in medicine and genetic science could significantly enhance longevity by improving both the detection and treatment of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimers and even obesity. In another 15 to 20 years, scientists will be able to prevent the onset of many “killer diseases,” such as cancer, by treating patients at the “molecular level.”

Genetics is becoming so advanced so rapidly that reality is on the verge of merging with fiction. Japanese scientists are trying to clone a wooly mammoth from the DNA of a frozen animal dug out from the permafrost of Siberia. If they prove successful, the mammoth would frolic in an “ice age” park.

Season tickets to Jurassic Park arent available just yet, but breakthroughs in medicine and genetics already are helping make life insurance more affordable for nearly everyone. Just think how much cheaper life insurance prices might eventually become if scientists one day discover a cure for obesity.

Ann Hoven, M.D., the chief medical director for Hartford Life Insurance Company, Simsbury, Conn., is responsible for setting medical underwriting criteria for individual life and assists in assessing individual underwriting risks. Her e-mail is ann.hoven@hartfordlife.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, November 14, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.