8 ways people blow their life insurance medical exams

There's nothing you can do to erase evidence of a lifetime habit of cheeseburgers and cigarettes before a life insurance medical exam. But you can avoid mistakes that lead to false test results and higher life insurance rates.

A life insurance medical exam takes about 20 minutes and includes height, weight and blood pressure checks, the collection of a blood or urine sample and a request for medical history. The healthier the measurements and lab results, the lower the premiums you'll pay for coverage. 

Here are more details about life insurance medical exams.

"A lot of people don't think about preparing for the exam," says Jo Steinberg, CEO of Midland Health in Brookfield, Wis., which conducts paramedical exams for Examination Management Services Inc. (EMSI) in southern Wisconsin. "They just show up for an appointment."

And that may be problematic because a host of things, from the ordinary to the exotic, can throw off test results.

Wacky life insurance exam readings

Steinberg recalls a stock broker who couldn't take his eyes off the stock ticker while she conducted the exam in his office. As the market numbers scrolled by, his heart rate and blood pressure went through the roof.

"I finally had to pull him away from that," she says. When he couldn't watch the stock market drama, the readings were normal.

avoid mistakes before a life insurance medical examBetsy Sears, executive vice president of sales for ExamOne, a Quest Diagnostics Co., has seen false positives for cocaine abuse in coca tea drinkers. Made from coca leaves, the tea is used to treat altitude sickness in the Andes. American travelers bring it back from South America and sip it at home, not realizing the tea metabolizes in the body like cocaine.

Years ago, people could test positive for opiate use after eating poppy seeds. Remember the "Seinfeld" episode when Elaine tests positive for opium, and then realizes it's from her favorite poppy seed muffins?

Since then, though, the threshold for a positive opiate test has been raised. Although there are some strains of especially potent poppy seeds, you probably won't test positive for opiates from eating baked goods these days, Sears says.

Most likely to mess up your results are the following, examiners say.

1. Drinking too much coffee

It's probably OK to have your usual cup of Joe the morning of an exam, but gulping down several cups is a bad idea. Avoid any caffeine -- including those "energy shots" -- at least an hour before the exam, says Kim Anderson, senior vice president of EMSI's Insurance Services Division.

Stimulants like caffeine boost blood pressure and heart rate. Get a good night's sleep so you don't need a big jolt to get going.

2. Getting stressed out

Steinberg has often seen "white coat syndrome" boost blood pressure readings.

"People will get nervous when they see that someone with authority is taking their blood pressure," she says.

Use relaxation techniques, and spend time in a calm environment. Save the confrontation with your boss for after the exam.

3. Eating when you're supposed to fast

Eating before a blood test can elevate triglyceride and glucose readings, Sears says. Follow fasting instructions, and let the technician know if you had anything to eat and when.

4. Doing a killer workout

Exercise is good for you over the long haul, but a strenuous workout can spill protein into the urine, Sears says. Even if the elevated protein level is temporary and due to exercise, the insurance company won't know that. High protein levels in urine can indicate kidney problems.

EMSI recommends no strenuous exercise at least 12 hours before the exam.

5. Skimping on water

"A lot of people are under the false impression if they stay away from fluids, their weight will go down," Steinberg says.

But that's not the case, and you should drink plenty of water the day before the exam and a large glass an hour beforehand.

"If you're dehydrated, the concentration of your urine can be a bit outside the normal range," Anderson says. "A lot of carriers look for sugar and protein, and those can be elevated if you're dehydrated."

Dehydration also makes it tough for you to produce a urine sample and for a phlebotomist to find a vein.

"It's like getting blood from a turnip," Steinberg says.

6. Smoking

You can't avoid nicotine rates if you're a regular tobacco user -- the evidence will show up in lab tests. But you should still avoid any tobacco at least an hour before an exam, Anderson says. Nicotine is a stimulant and can elevate blood pressure.

7. Getting drunk the night before

A customary small glass of wine with dinner is probably OK, Sears says, but don't overdo it. The alcohol could throw off test results for liver function.

Anderson advises avoiding all alcohol at least eight hours before the exam.

8. Binging on pretzels and chips

Too much salt can lead to dehydration, boost your weight and throw off tests for kidney function. Avoid unusually salty foods 24 hours before the exam.

Finally make a list of all the medications you take and bring that with you to the exam, along with identification, your doctors' names and phone numbers and information about your family medical history. The paramedical examiner will likely go over all that information, even if you've already given it to your life insurance agent.

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