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Higher risk factors mean higher life insurance costs

Let’s talk life insurance. Actuarial tables, risk assessment, morbidity. Exciting stuff, right? Well, don’t doze off now.

Shopping for life insurance and qualifying for a good rate may not be as exciting as shoe shopping, but failing to do your homework can end up costing more than a whole closet of Coach purses.

“Getting dropped to a less-favorable tier can mean the difference of hundreds of dollars per year, or thousands of dollars over the life of a policy,” said Ryan Ficorilli, a financial adviser and chief information officer for Georgetown Capital Group Investment Advisers in Williamsville.

Unfortunately, very subtle differences – something as little as a two-point change in cholesterol–can sometimes be enough to knock you out of a favorable tier and into another, more expensive one.

The good news is, you have at least some degree of control over many of the factors that affect your rate when applying for a life insurance policy.

To secure the lowest premium possible, here’s what the experts suggest:

• Start at the end. Usually, when shopping for insurance, the first thing you do is fill out questionnaires that help estimate your initial quote. But it’s not until several weeks later that your medical exam results are underwritten and you find the true price of your premium, which can be much higher.

Start with the medical exam first, and you’ll be able to comparison-shop much more accurately.

“You can say, ‘Here’s my risk profile, what kind of rate can you give me?’ ” said Norlyn Dimmitt, a consumer advocate and former actuary. “It will save you a lot of time and hassle.”

Insurance companies look at blood pressure, cholesterol levels (your HDL, LDL, triglyceride and total cholesterol) and Body Mass Index (your height to weight ratio) as the biggest indicators of health. Get your annual physical and blood work done and ask your doctor for those numbers.

The insurance company will do its own physical, but at least you’ll know what you can expect and whether you should appeal your results.

• Quit smoking. This is a no-brainer. Smoking will kill you, and for that reason, smokers pay twice as much for life insurance as non-smokers.

The healthiest smoker (say, someone with 2 percent body fat, low cholesterol and great blood pressure) will always pay more for life insurance than the unhealthiest nonsmoker (such as an obese couch potato with high cholesterol and high blood pressure).

Even if you smoke just a few cigarettes a day, you’ll be considered as risky a prospect to insure as someone who smokes a pack a day.

If you are a smoker, don’t bother trying to lie. Even if nicotine doesn’t show up in your blood work, insurance companies have plenty of other ways to find out whether you partake or not, such as asking your doctor.

• Lose weight. One of the biggest risk factors that increases the cost of a premium is your Body Mass Index. Overweight policyholders are much more likely to die from obesity-related diseases.

• Keep a clean driving record. One driving while intoxicated conviction or multiple speeding tickets will throw you into a less-preferred and more expensive pricing tier. Yes, they will pull your DMV records.

If you don’t qualify for superior rates, don’t wait. Insurance companies inquire about DWI convictions that have occurred within five years of the application date. Smokers typically qualify for nonsmoker rates after two years of quitting (their risk level evens out to that of a true nonsmoker after 10 years). But that doesn’t mean you should leave your family uninsured and unprotected while you wait to become an optimal candidate.

Instead, you might consider buying a shorter-term policy, such as a five-year policy, so that you’re in a better risk category when it’s time to re-up. Do your homework first, though. You may be better off locking into a longer-term rate at a younger age with a less desirable record than shopping around later when you’re healthier but older.

• Meditate. Even if it’s just before and during your physical exam, meditation is proven to have immediate effects on lowering blood pressure.

• Consider a career change. An accountant has a much lower risk of dying on the job than a crab fisherman on “Deadliest Catch.” Loggers, roofers, ranchers, farmers, aircraft pilots, recyclable materials collectors, power line workers and traveling salesmen have some of the highest mortality rates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

• Eat your oatmeal. As important as your BMI are your cholesterol readings. Foods like oatmeal, fish and most nuts can help keep your cholesterol levels down, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Go to the doctor regularly. You will have to sign a privacy waiver so the insurance company can communicate with your doctors. If you show that you take proactive care of your health with regular well visits, that will help.

The insurer will also want to know what specialists you see. It can work against you if you see them for chronic conditions, but well visits intended to support good health will reflect positively.

• Don’t show off. You’ll be asked whether you engage in risky activities such a skydiving or flying. Don’t lie, but if you truly have no plans to do it in the future, answer no. If you do end up in the Caribbean one day and take an impromptu scuba diving excursion, you won’t be penalized.

• Buy early. The younger you are, the lower your risk is of dying and therefore, the cheaper your premium will be.

Use an agent. Underwriting varies from company to company, and while your penchant for skydiving may disqualify you for a premium rate at one company, it might not be as heavily weighted by another. Agents can shop multiple carriers to find you the best rate.

Make that three agents. Insurance agents are usually honest people. But if they know they are competing for your business against others, they will be more likely to choose the policy that gives you the best value instead of earning them the best commission.

“I can’t overstress that point, make sure at least two brokers are duking it out with one another,” Dimmitt said.

Shop online quote engines. Many insurance search engines make money steering you toward certain companies. You might have more luck with sites such as,, and

Pay attention to an insurance company’s financial stability rating, but not too much attention. You’ll want a policy from a company that has at least an “A” rating from A.M. Best, but an “A++” rating is not necessary. In fact, you may end up paying more for that rating.

Consider smaller insurance companies you’ve never heard of. Someone has to pay for all those commercials advertising the big-name players. That somebody is you.

Above all, be honest.

“Can you lie? Yes you can,” Ficorilli said. “Is it a wise thing to do? No.”

You may get away with it for a while, but if something happens to you and that lie comes to light, the insurance company won’t have to pay your death benefit.

Prep for your physical

To test optimally, do some homework before your physical exam: • Avoid secondhand

smoke for 30 days.

Testing positive for even a small amount of nicotine can cause your premium to skyrocket. If you smoke cigars, abstain for the 30 days leading up to your exam.

• Avoid strenuous

exercise for 24 hours

before the exam.

It can mess with your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, white blood cell count and glucose reading.

• Fast for at least 12 hours. Food can cause certain levels to spike and cause a costly misreading.

• Avoid alcohol for

at least 24 hours.

You don’t want to test as someone who has whiskey in their system at 8 a.m.

Alcohol can also interfere with liver function readings.

• Avoid caffeine for 24 hours.

It can elevate your blood pressure.

• Drink water.

You’ll need to give blood

and urine samples.

• Avoid salt, high cholesterol, high fat, high sugar and starchy foods for as long as possible before the exam, but definitely for at least 24 hours. They can spike lipid, blood pressure and glucose readings