Do life insurers screw short people?



Myles Ma

Myles Ma

Senior Reporter

Myles Ma is a senior reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance and writes the Easy Money newsletter. His expertise has been featured in The Washington Post, PBS, CNBC, CBS News, USA Today, HuffPost, Salon, Inc. Magazine, MarketWatch, and elsewhere.

Published September 12, 2017 | 3 min read

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Featured Image Do life insurers screw short people?

Here's a dumb thought I recently had: Does insurance screw over short, muscular people?

I had the thought because your life insurance rate is partially based the ratio of your height and weight, commonly known as body mass index.

While each insurer has different underwriting criteria, most will only let you get their Preferred Plus-rated life insurance if you keep your BMI within a certain range. Basically if you're too heavy or too light for your height, you won't have access to the best insurance.

This makes sense. Being under- or overweight makes you more likely to, uh, die from an insurer's point of view.

A flawed measure?

Only thing is, BMI, which was first created in the 1800s, is increasingly seen as a poor way to measure someone's health.

For one, it can flag very muscular but short people as overweight. My BMI is acceptable for a 5-foot-7-inch tall man, but if I put on tons of muscle (AS I PLAN TO DO), I'll no longer be eligible for the best tier of life insurance, despite my impressive physique.

Other, equally built men who would have trouble under BMI include LeBron James (overweight) and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (obese). (Of course, the biggest problem with insuring those guys is their riches, not their size.)

A 2016 study by UCLA psychologists found that BMI incorrectly labeled 54 million Americans as "unhealthy," even though they were not. The study looked at the link between BMI and health markers including blood pressure and cholesterol and found that 34.4 million people considered overweight and 19.8 million considered obese are actually healthy based on these other measures.

"Employers, policy makers and insurance companies should focus on actual health markers," A. Janet Tomiyama, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Why it's still used

So why do insurers continue to use BMI? AIG cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says BMI correlates strongly to more direct measures of body fat.

Put another way, BMI usually tells the same story as other measures of fat. And its advantage is that it's cheap, easy and non-invasive.

Theresa Silvestro, one of our PolicyGeniuses, said BMI may be an indicator of health problems, even for someone whose muscles have muscles.

"If the BMI is high enough for the body builder to get dinged to begin with, there is potential for heart damage, elevated protein and other issues down the line an underwriter needs to consider," she said.

How to cope

So what can you do if your BMI is on the higher side? You can always try to lose weight.

That's easier said than done, for sure, but in addition, insurance companies want to see you keep the weight off for at least a year to get credit.

BMI may be a flawed measure, but for now, it's the law of the land. For better or worse, the price of your insurance will depend on a centuries-old equation.

If it makes you feel any better, other health markers can get it wrong too, especially for extraordinary athletes. Silvestro told me she had another client a client who was an ultra marathoner whose blood pressure was just barely above dead. He was incredibly healthy, but the numbers meant he couldn't get the best policy.

"He got second best, but I had to fight," she said.

The lesson? Many health measures are flawed when looked at in a vacuum, and someone, somewhere is always getting the shaft as a result. However, if you're really really ridiculously muscular, maybe that's worth paying a little more for life insurance.