Pass the dessert, please

James Miles discusses the growing difference in average life span between Americans and Western Europeans.

by James Miles, SOA Consulting Staff Fellow, Individual Life & Annuity Solutions

JimMiles A recent news release from USC about a research study caught the attention of several health news sites. At least one site promoted the research with the headline: Americans No Longer Outliving Europeans. The average life spans of the people of several countries have been greater than Americans’ for quite a while, so I was surprised the new site used that headline to highlight a research study that looked at the difference in health between Americans and Western Europeans. I suppose any headline that implies that Americans are no longer the best at something tends to attract the attention of U.S. readers.


The researchers stated that the growing difference in average life span between Americans and Western Europeans is due to the decline in health of near-elderly Americans. Based on the results from their model, they concluded that a significant driver of the difference is the higher rate of obesity in the U.S. population compared to the rate of obesity in the Western European population. Their observation appears to confirm the prediction made in the 2001 report “The U.S. Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity” that the health problems resulting from overweight and obesity could reverse many of the health gains achieved in the United States. The 2010 Society of Actuaries’ research study “Obesity and its Relation to Mortality and Morbidity Costs” estimated that total annual economic cost of overweight and obesity in the United States and Canada caused by medical costs, excess mortality and disability is approximately $300 billion in 2009.

An understanding and awareness of the impact of smoking on mortality led to the current life insurance industry practice of classifying applicants and publishing premium rates as tobacco use and non-tobacco use. This practice highlights the mortality costs of tobacco use in a very public and transparent way. Will obesity become the next major premium classification for the life insurance industry?

In the future, when I ask for a basic quote on a life insurance policy from my agent or at an online site, will the initial questions for determining my premium rate be age? sex? tobacco user? obese?

The life insurance industry is traditionally slow in adapting to change, so in the meantime would you mind passing me that piece of dessert?

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