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How blood pressure and cholesterol affect life insurance rates

When you're applying for life insurance, the insurance company considers not only your blood pressure and cholesterol in determining premiums but also your age, weight, whether you smoke and any other factors that might increase your risk for heart disease. The more risk factors you have, the more you'll have to for a policy.

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"If someone has treated and controlled hypertension, it probably won't affect their life insurance application," says Dr. Alison Moy, medical director for Liberty Mutual in Boston, Mass. "If they're overweight, have high blood pressure combined with high cholesterol and smoke— they will pay higher premiums."

If you have high blood pressure but aren't overweight, don't smoke and have normal cholesterol, you could still qualify for good life insurance rates. On the other hand, if you are overweight and have high cholesterol, even if you're a nonsmoker with normal blood pressure, you might be offered only "standard" premiums. See more on underwriting categories.

"There are two categories when it comes to high blood pressure: one is controlled and the other is not controlled, " says Ed Hinerman, owner of Hinerman Group insurance agency in Salida, Colo. "If a person is diagnosed with high blood pressure and it's well-controlled, they can get preferred plus rates with some companies. If it's out of control, their rates start to go up."

Hinerman notes that high cholesterol is rated differently than high blood pressure.

"If you have been treated and it's being maintained, insurers see that as a positive because you're taking care of it. Almost all companies will allow their best rate class" for applicants with high cholesterol, he says.

How high is too high?

The American Heart Association generally recommends keeping your total cholesterol below 200, with low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol below 100, to stay healthy. If your blood pressure goes above 140 over 90, doctors will have concerns. Even so, life insurers might look at those numbers differently.

"Having blood pressure that is 140 over 90 is the borderline where damage starts happening. You are at risk even at that level of having a stroke, so [insurers] would certainly rate you at a level where there's a mortality risk— at least until you get it under control," says Hinerman.

Acceptable blood pressure and cholesterol levels also depend heavily on your age and gender. Insurers have developed charts to match your age and gender to your blood pressure and cholesterol to determine if there is a cause for concern.

"For someone to be declined because of high cholesterol, there would have to be an egregious amount of bad cholesterol," says Hinerman. Appkicants who don't have their cholesterol under control yet could receive a postponed decision until they can show progress.

How will you know if you're in for problems?

If your physician tells you to start taking medication to get your blood pressure or cholesterol under control, and you don't follow doctor's orders, expect to be charged higher premiums. On the other hand, if your doctor doesn't view your blood pressure or cholesterol as serious enough to warrant medication, it probably won't affect your life insurance application either.

If the medication you're taking has been successful in lowering your blood pressure or cholesterol, it will not drive up your life insurance premiums. Today's medications are very effective at bringing down elevated cholesterol and controlling blood pressure, and most insurers care more about your levels when you apply for insurance than the medication you took to get them there.

"It all comes down to the levels when you apply for life insurance," says Moy. "If the medications work and you're following your doctor's advice, you can qualify for a better premium class."

What if your life insurer finds out before you do?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one-third of people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol don't know they have it. That means a lot of folks are in for a surprise when they get the results of their insurance medical exams.

"This happens all the time," says Hinerman. "They are often aware that they have high blood pressure, but high cholesterol is definitely the most common surprise on the lab results."

When these exams uncover an unfavorable combination of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, age and/or weight, some life insurers will still offer you a standard-rate policy, but this will come as a shock if you were expecting preferred premiums.

If you accept a policy with standard premiums, and later you and your doctor are able to get your blood pressure or cholesterol under better control, you can petition your life insurer to lower your premiums.

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