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A managing general agency (MGA) in Minneapolis says it has started using information about life insurance applicants’ epigenetic markers in life expectancy forecasts.

The MGA, YouSurance, says it will use epigenetic biomarkers when assessing applicants’ overall health, gauging how quickly the applicants are aging, and predicting how likely the applicants are to die.

(Related: Stress May Be Widening the U.S. Longevity Gap)

YouSurance, a unit of GWG Holdings Inc., offers life insurance quotes from multiple carriers to consumers through the web.

When YouSurance is underwriting applicants, it asks the applicants to mail in saliva samples. It then has a lab screen the genes in the cells in the saliva sample, to look at the pattern of “methylation” in the genes’ DNA.

Consumers who apply for life insurance through the YouSurance site will get a longevity report that gives them an estimate of their “epigenetic age,” or age based on their DNA methylation, the company says.

The company says it believes it’s the first to give life insurance applicants information about their epigenetic age.

Why does YouSurance look at epigenetic information?

Genes are like the cells’ software. DNA is the system that genes use to store their instructions.

“Methylation” is a process in which bits of chemicals related to methane get stuck to the DNA in the genes. Scientists say methylation causes “epigenetic changes,” or changes that affect how genes work, in a way that can be passed on to offspring, without changing underlying genetic code.

Scientists are still studying why these epigenetic changes occur, and what they do. But researchers at another GWG unit, Life Epigenetics Inc., say they have found that they can use methylation information to measure how quickly people are aging, even after adjusting for other factors, such as information about people’s smoking, cancer and heart disease.

A paper about the technology YouSurance is using is available here.

The YouSurance team has posted a video on its website to help consumers understand the company’s epigenetic testing process.

Brian Chen, the company’s chief science officer, assures viewers that the company will simply screen their DNA, not actually modify their DNA.

— Read Reinsurers Have Traded $60 Billion in Longevity Risk: Rating Agencyon ThinkAdvisor.

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