When It Comes to Life Insurance Rates, Your Health Matters

By Elizabeth Renter

What are the chances you'll die within the next several years? That's the unpleasant question insurers weigh when they price a new term life insurance policy.

Your ability to get life insurance and the price you'll pay are based on your risk of dying while the policy is in force. If you're in good health and make low-risk lifestyle choices, you can qualify for better rates than someone who's overweight and uses tobacco, for example.

"For life insurance companies, the name of the game is life expectancy," says NerdWallet insurance expert Amy Danise. "They need to predict your life span in order to accurately price their policies."

Unfortunately, some health risks are not under your control. For instance, you can't control your family's history of heart disease and cancer, which can affect the price of your policy. But there are some things you can do to get better rates, especially if you start early.

How life insurers measure your health

Life insurance pricing is based on how the insurer classifies you. This is determined largely by your health and habits, as revealed through interviews, medical and prescription drug records, and a medical exam. Although the names of these life insurance categories may differ among insurance companies, their requirements are similar.

If you're in excellent health and don't use nicotine products, you could qualify for super preferred rates, the best available. Preferred rates are for folks in good health, and standard rates are generally given to people of average health. Smokers get their own, higher rates.

These categories could make a difference of hundreds or even thousands of dollars on your annual premiums.

Smoking is the greatest cost

Of all single factors in term life insurance quotes, smoking or using other nicotine products has the most weight. Even with an otherwise clean bill of health, smokers' rates are higher, Danise says.

According to a NerdWallet analysis, a 45-year-old seeking coverage and qualifying for standard rates will pay about $1,000 more per year on a 20-year, $500,000 policy if he or she smokes, chews tobacco or even uses nicotine gum.

Keep in mind that you can't quit smoking today to qualify for the more affordable rates tomorrow. To offer better rates, most insurers want applicants to have been nicotine-free for at least a year. And if you're trying to qualify for the best rates -- a super preferred or equivalent category -- you'll need to have abstained for at least five years.

Your diet and fitness count

Eating and exercise habits can also play a role in how much you'll pay, though not directly. Your overall fitness and nutrition affect health metrics like weight, cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and the insurer will look at these numbers when deciding your rates.

If you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, you'll pay more, even if you're otherwise healthy. Likewise, you'll pay more if you're overweight but healthy.

For example, insurer MetLife says a man 5 feet 10 inches tall should weigh 199 pounds or less to receive its top tier classification with the lowest rates. A 5-foot-5-inch woman should weigh 161 pounds or less.

Risky behaviors could make you uninsurable

A few factors could block you from getting a policy entirely, at least for a time.

You may have to wait five years after a drunk driving conviction to qualify for the best rates, and there are typically caps on how many moving violations you can have on your driving record in order to get good rates or even qualify for a policy.

A history of alcohol or drug abuse within the past several years could also preclude you from getting coverage.

Ask to be re-rated

Even if you had poor health when you bought your life insurance policy, don't despair, Danise says.

"Once you're a customer, if you have a major health improvement since the time you bought your policy, you can ask to have your policy 're-rated,'" she says. "Keep in mind that your older age and any new health issues will be factored into the new price, but a re-rating could still lead to a good savings on your life insurance."

Elizabeth Renter is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: elizabeth@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @ElizabethRenter.