Life Insurance and COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is most commonly referred to as COPD and is a lung disease that makes it difficult for a person to breathe.

It is a chronic disease that tends to get worse over time, and while there’s no known cure and you can’t undo the damage to your lungs, there are steps you can take to keep more damage from happening and to relieve symptoms.

For these reasons, getting life insurance coverage can be problematic, but depending on the severity of your case, you can still have a reasonable expectation that you can find the coverage you are seeking.

What You Need to Know About COPD

In almost all cases, COPD is caused by smoking.

Tobacco irritates a person’s airways and lungs and destroys the elasticity of the lungs over time.  Other secondary causes of COPD can include prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke, asbestos, air pollution, chemical fumes or other airborne irritants.

It takes many years for COPD to develop and while some people may develop the disease in their 30s or 40s, COPD is generally found in people who are age 60 and older.

The primary symptoms of COPD are a chronic cough, shortness of breath when you exert yourself and the presence of mucus when you cough.  As these symptoms get worse, you’ll notice that even simple chores will become more and more difficult to accomplish because breathing takes much more energy than normal.

The onset of COPD usually takes place when emphysema and chronic bronchitis combine to work against your lungs and your body.  In addition, when the symptoms of these conditions flair up, a person will experience what is known as COPD exacerbation.

Emphysema is a disease that destroys the alveoli in the lungs.  Alveoli are the small sacs that facilitate an exchange of oxygen between the air in the lungs and a person’s blood stream.  Smoking causes emphysema which is characterized primarily by a shortness of breath that gets worse over time.  The use of tobacco causes inflammation, and the body’s response to the inflammation results in the immune system destroying elastin and other parts of the lungs.

Although there is no cure, the effects of emphysema may be lessened through the use of oxygen and medications that preserve the remaining lung functions.  On rare occasions, emphysema may be caused by genetic deformities.

Chronic bronchitis takes place when a person’s bronchial tubes and the lung’s smaller branches, called bronchioles, become inflamed.  This results in too much mucus being expelled into the tubes and induces swelling that may narrow or cut them off.  Bronchitis is considered chronic when it occurs for at least three months out of a year for at least two years in a row.   A person is often diagnosed with chronic bronchitis through chest x-rays, pulmonary function tests such as treadmill tests, or CT imaging studies.  Although chronic bronchitis is progressive, if caught early enough before there is too much bronchial damage, a person who stops smoking and avoids other irritants can still lead a relatively healthy life for many years.

COPD exacerbation takes place from time to time, when your symptoms flare up and become a lot worse.  COPD exacerbation can be life threatening and will be more severe in nature the longer you have suffered from COPD.   Some specific symptoms of an exacerbation will include:

  • Shortness of breath even when you are sitting still
  • Worry that causes your muscles to tense up and make it even harder to draw a breath
  • Excessive coughing above and beyond what you normally may have as a COPD sufferer
  • A blue tint around your lips and nails, or if your skin looks grey or yellow indicating a lack of oxygen in your system
  • Loss of appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches in the morning due to low oxygen levels
  • Swollen legs or ankles
  • Uneven breathing

While there is no cure for COPD, several steps can be taken to lessen the impacts.  How each person with COPD is treated will depend on the severity of their condition.  But all treatments have the same goals of relieving symptoms, preventing future complications, and finding ways to improve health and exercise tolerance.

COPD treatments may include:

  • Stopping smoking – It’s an obvious solution, but due to the highly addictive nature of nicotine, it’s not always easy to do.
  • Enhanced nutrition – People who struggle to breathe can burn many more calories than a person in normal health. This can lead to weight loss and a loss of muscle mass.  Special high calorie healthy diets are often prescribed as part of a regimen to improve a COPD sufferer’s health.
  • Oxygen – It is the easiest way to provide instant relief to a person with lungs that do not function well.
  • Bronchodilators – This class of drugs works to open up air passages and make it easier to breathe, allowing for a greater capacity to exercise and draw in air. Some of these are short acting and provide instant relief, while others are designed to be long lasting, helping to keep airways open every day.
  • Corticosteroids – These are used to reduce inflammation and open up airways. They are especially effective when COPD exacerbation strikes and include drugs such as prednisone or budesonide.  They are often combined with antibiotics to combat bacterial infections that many times accompany a bout of exacerbation.
  • Surgery – Although extreme, when other treatments do not work, a sufferer may be a candidate for a lung transplant.

COPD Medications Life Insurance Companies Want to Know about

If you are currently being treated for COPD, you’ll want to disclose the medication on your life insurance application.  Below is a list of the common medications for COPD that life insurance underwriters will need to know about prior to reviewing a life insurance application.

  • Spiriva
  • DuoNeb
  • Accuneb
  • albuterol
  • Atrovent
  • atenelol
  • fluticasone

If you are taking any medications to treat COPD, make sure you properly disclose that information on your life insurance application.

 Getting Life Insurance If You Suffer from COPD

If you have COPD, you are not automatically excluded from getting a life insurance policy.  Underwriters will consider many factors before they decide whether or not to issue a policy.  A mild case of COPD may often earn a person a standard rating, meaning virtually no bump up in premiums from an otherwise healthy person.

With a moderate case of COPD, one in which coughing, shortness of breath and other symptoms are readily present, an applicant will be impacted.  Chances are you’ll have to find a life insurance company that specializes in writing high risk policies.  You can expect to be charged a larger premium as a result.

A person with severe COPD, defined as less than 50 percent of lung capacity, will have a difficult time finding a company to write a traditional policy for them.  Premiums will be high and in many cases, a provision may be built into the policy that says death benefits will not be paid during the first two or three years of the policy being in force.

In all cases, a life insurance company will want to see all of your medical records and will be particularly interested in how long you have suffered from COPD, what treatments you have been undergoing and how quickly the disease is progressing.

Additionally, they will want to know how many years you smoked, whether you are still actively smoking, and if anyone else in your home is still an active smoker.

Other questions will include whether or not you have any additional medical conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity, or previous episodes of heart disease or cancer.