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Buying life insurance with a chronic illness

Having a chronic illness can impact your life insurance premiums, but how much it does depends on your condition and varies by insurer.

Amanda Shih author photoLogan Sachon

Amanda Shih & Logan Sachon

Published August 26, 2020


  • A severe chronic medical condition can increase your life insurance costs, but some providers will still offer you competitive premiums

  • The diagnosis, time since the diagnosis, treatment, and your overall health influence your premium pricing

  • If you’re denied traditional insurance due to a chronic condition, you may be approved for guaranteed or simplified issue life insurance

  • Optional riders can add additional financial support for long-term care while you’re alive

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), six out of every 10 adults in the U.S. lives with one chronic illness, and 4 in 10 have two or more. If you have a chronic illness, you may feel nervous about qualifying for life insurance coverage or finding an affordable policy. But getting life insurance with a chronic illness is not impossible. In fact, depending on your specific medical history and diagnosis, you may even get cheaper life insurance than you initially expected.

Having a chronic illness will likely impact the insurance classification that an underwriter assigns you, but several details factor into that decision. Some insurers may be friendlier toward people with your specific illness than others or offer flexibility if you consistently treat and manage your condition. Once you’ve chosen a policy, some riders can help customize your coverage to account for medical costs you might encounter as you age. And for rare cases when you may be unable to buy traditional term or whole life insurance, there are alternatives to ensure you’re financially protected.

How chronic illness affects life insurance coverage

During the underwriting process an underwriter uses the insurer’s algorithms and data to decide, based on your health history, hobbies, and other personal details, how risky it is to insure you. After underwriting you’ll be given a health classification, and your policy premium will be based on which classification you receive.

There are four main health classifications:

  • Preferred Plus
  • Preferred
  • Standard Plus
  • Standard

A Preferred Plus classification will earn you the lowest premiums, and premium pricing increases by classification from there. If your health history is especially complex, you may be placed in a Substandard category (also known as a table rating).

If you have a chronic illness, you won’t immediately get a standard plus or standard classification. Every life insurance company has its own set of underwriting guidelines and treats each illness differently. Your health classification varies based on your diagnosis, your treatment regimen, and even how long you’ve had the diagnosis. Someone recently diagnosed with depression who doesn’t use therapy or prescriptions to treat it could be denied life insurance coverage, but someone with a mild case and a track record of consistent treatment may be eligible for a Preferred or Standard classification.

Regardless of your diagnosis, it’s important to disclose your entire health history to the underwriter, including any chronic medical conditions. Intentionally withholding this information is fraud, and an insurer can cancel or reject your coverage if they discover you’ve been dishonest. An independent broker who is familiar with the underwriting guidelines at multiple providers can recommend the companies most likely to give you the best health classification for your diagnosis — and the best premium pricing.


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The best life insurance for people with chronic illness

There is no one best life insurance company for people living with chronic illness, but there are insurers that are more forgiving of certain health conditions than others. Since every insurer has its own guidelines for every medical condition, it’s important to understand what medical information will influence an insurer’s decision about your diagnosis.

Life insurance for people with diabetes

If you have diabetes, then life insurers are principally concerned with the age at which you were diagnosed, the type of diabetes you have and its severity, and how you treat and control it. If you were younger when you received a diagnosis, have type 1 diabetes, have a severe case of diabetes or additional diabetes-related health conditions, or don’t consistently treat and control your symptoms, these can be red flags for an underwriter and lead to higher premiums.

Life insurance for people with high cholesterol

Life insurance providers will evaluate your cholesterol levels when you apply, and generally look at your overall cholesterol levels and the ratio of your “good” cholesterol to your total cholesterol levels. Insurers have different guidelines for what levels they find acceptable to qualify for each health classification, and your age and gender may be a factor, too. If you have high cholesterol and you’re young, that could raise flags, and an insurer's guidelines may be different for men and women.

Life insurance for people with sleep apnea

Sleep apnea is a common chronic condition with a wide spectrum of symptoms ranging from snoring to hypertension. Insurers will be most interested in the severity of your sleep apnea and whether it’s caused by or causing another health concern, like heart disease or lung issues. Severe cases or those related to other health issues will raise flags.

Life insurance for people with depression and anxiety

Underwriting guidelines for clinical depression and anxiety can be particularly variable between insurance companies. However, most insurers will want to know the same information: when you received your diagnosis, your prescription or therapy history, the severity of your diagnosis, and whether you’ve been hospitalized for your mental health or have a history of self-harm. As with other chronic medical conditions, insurers will look more favorably on less severe depression or anxiety and people who show a consistent record of treatment.

Life insurance for recovering alcoholics

Insurance companies are most concerned about the long-term health effects associated with alcoholism, like stroke and liver disease. You may have difficulty finding competitive premiums up to seven years after quitting drinking due to the high recidivism rate in alcoholics, and if you admit to even occasional alcohol consumption as a former alcoholic, insurers may reject your application. If you have a DWI on your motor vehicle report, many insurers will deny your application as well.

Life insurance for people with a history of cancer

If you have a recent cancer diagnosis or are currently being treated for cancer, you’ll likely need to pursue an alternative to traditional life insurance. But if you’re a few years in remission or have a history of cancer in your immediate family, some insurers may still offer you a Preferred classification. The underwriter will ask about your diagnosis and treatment history — some cancers, like skin cancer, are treated more favorably than others — as well as whether your parents or siblings have ever had cancer.

Life insurance for people with high blood pressure

An insurer will focus on a few factors if you have high blood pressure: your age at its onset, the severity of the condition, and whether you treat it consistently by managing your diet, exercise, or stress. Having a long history of blood pressure concerns, a severe case, or a poor treatment regimen to manage it may hurt your health classification and premiums.

Remember that every individual’s health profile is different, and every insurer will evaluate your health profile differently. While one provider might offer the best premiums for people with diabetes, another might have the best premiums for people with diabetes and a family history of cancer. An independent insurance broker will be able to more accurately identify the best companies for your personal circumstances.

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Life insurance riders for chronic illness

The main reason to buy life insurance is to provide financial support to a beneficiary after you die. But you have the option to add riders to personalize your coverage and make it work for you while you’re still alive. This is especially helpful if you have a chronic illness that might require expensive care as you get older or if your condition worsens.

Many policies offer one or more accelerated death benefits riders, also known as living benefits riders. If you have a qualifying health condition these allow you to access some of your life insurance death benefit while you are still alive. The availability and cost of each rider varies by type and insurer, and you’ll need to provide proof of your medical need to activate them.

There are a few types of accelerated death benefit riders for different scenarios:

Terminal illness accelerated death benefit rider

Provides benefits if you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than 6 to 12 months to live. Most insurers automatically include this rider in your policy and call it an accelerated benefits rider.

Critical illness accelerated death benefit rider

Provides benefits if you are diagnosed with one of the rider’s listed critical illnesses: examples include ALS, kidney failure, life-threatening cancer, major organ failure, heart attack, and stroke.

Chronic illness accelerated death benefit rider

Provides benefits if you are no longer able to perform at least two of the six activities of daily living: ambulating (i.e., walking independently), eating, getting dressed, personal hygiene, continence, and using the toilet without assistance. These riders require that you’re permanently impaired.

Long-term care (LTC) rider

Provides benefits if you are no longer able to perform at least two of the six activities of daily living, either temporarily or permanently. LTC riders won’t cover medical expenses, but will cover monthly long-term care costs like nursing home or memory center care. Many LTC riders offer residual benefits in excess of your death benefit (meaning even if you spend your entire death benefit paying for your nursing home, they’ll keep paying). Because of the expenses associated with long-term care, these riders are among the costliest to add to a policy.

What if you’re denied life insurance due to chronic illness?

Sometimes, your particular medical history means that you won’t be approved for a traditional life insurance policy. If you are declined for a traditional term or whole life policy, you aren’t out of options. There are some life insurance products that offer policies to people in poor health, though at a higher cost.

The two main forms are:

Both simplified issue and guaranteed issue policies are permanent policies that have higher premiums and lower benefit amounts than term life insurance since, by design, the insurer is unable to fully evaluate their risk of insuring you. And it's possible to be denied for a simplified or guaranteed issue policy in some cases, like if you’re terminally ill or have HIV. But if you have a particularly complicated medical history or medical condition, these policies may secure some financial protection.

Shopping for life insurance while living with a chronic illness doesn’t have to be complicated. Doing some preliminary research about how underwriters will evaluate your medical history and working with an independent insurance agent can help you identify the best and most affordable policy for your situation. Remember to be forthcoming about your health when you apply — even if your application is denied, a policy with no medical exam may allow you to ensure an insurance benefit for your loved ones.

Insurance Expert

Amanda Shih

Insurance Expert

Amanda Shih is an insurance editor at Policygenius in New York City. Previously, she worked in nonfiction book publishing and freelance content marketing. Amanda has a B.A. in literature and communication from New York University.

Insurance Expert

Logan Sachon

Insurance Expert

Logan Sachon is the co-founder of The Billfold, a groundbreaking personal finance site for millennials that was named one of Time's 25 Best Blogs of 2012. Her work has been published in New York Magazine, Glamour, The Guardian, BuzzFeed and more.

Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an insurance agent. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Consult a professional to learn what financial products are right for you.

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