Longevity Predictor Test: How Old Are You Really?

Should your life insurance company be prohibited from requiring you to take the test?



Two as-yet unidentified life insurance companies plan to use Life Epigenetics' M-Panel test to predict how long potential clients will live. The test, based on research by the UCLA scientists Steven Horvath and Brian Chen, essentially estimates an individual's biological age (as opposed to his chronological age) using markers associated with turning various genes off or on.

Horvath and Chen report that for about 5 percent of the people who take it, the M-Panel test finds that their biological age is around 10 years higher than their chronological age. For those unfortunate people, their risk of mortality is 48 percent higher than the average for their age cohort. More happily, about 20 percent of the test population learns that their biological age is 5 years younger, and their mortality risk 18 percent lower.

Needless to say, this could have interesting consequences for the life insurance market. If my results indicate that my biological age is younger than my chronological age, an insurer would be happy to charge me less for a term policy. On the other (and sadly more likely) hand, if my test indicated that my biological age is greater than my chronological age, the insurer would want to charge me higher premiums.

A 48 percent increase in mortality risk suggests that 55-year-old never-smokers' risk of dying in the next 10 years would rise substantially, from 74 to 110 out of 1,000 American men. That is approximately the same 10-year mortality risk 60-year-olds would have. According to TIAA's life insurance calculator, a male 55-year-old never-smoker standing 6 feet tall and weighing 180 pounds would pay $35 per month for a 20-year $100,000 term life policy. If the M-Panel test found that the would-be 55-year-old client's mortality risk is now similar to that of a 60-year-old, an insurance company using that information is likely bump his premium up to $53.00 per month.

The 2008 Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) "protects Americans from being treated unfairly because of differences in their DNA that may affect their health." But GINA specifically excluded life insurance, disability insurance, and long-term care insurance from its requirements. When GINA was enacted there was no good general genetic tests that could accurately predict heightened risks of mortality. Now there may be.

Does the advent of predictive aging tests mean that GINA's prohibitions should now be imposed on life insurers? No.

Life insurance companies have long managed the problem of adverse selection by identifying groups of people more at risk than the general population and then charging them more money. For example, insurers take factors like obesity and smoking into account when setting their premiums. The TIAA calculator boosts a 55-year-old's premium to $62 per month if he is obese and $130 per month if he smokes. If insurers are not allowed to take the results of accurate epigenetic accelerated aging tests into account, purchasers whose results show greater biological aging could load up on life insurance at relatively low cost to themselves. In such cases, average premiums would have to rise in order to cover the losses incurred by higher-risk folks who are paying rates that don't reflect their actual risks.

For more background see my article "Diagnosing Your Demise," in which I ask: Assuming that future genetic testing, combined with a sophisticated biochemical analysis of your past environmental insults, could accurately narrow your life expectancy down to a specific number of years, would you want to know how long you have left? My own unequivocal answer is yes.