Jeff is a well-known speaker and expert in life insurance and financial planning. He has been featured and quoted in Nerdwallet, Bloomberg, Forbes, U.S. News & Money, USA Today, and other leading finance websites. He is a licensed life insurance agent and has helped over 3000 people secure life insurance. He is licensed in all 50 states & DC. Jeff has spoken at top insurance conferen...

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Benjamin Carr was a licensed insurance agent in Georgia and has two years' experience in life, health, property and casualty coverage. He has worked with State Farm and other risk management firms. He is also a strategic writer and editor with a background in branding, marketing, and quality assurance. He has been in military newsrooms — literally on the frontline of journalism.

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Reviewed by Benji Carr
Former Licensed Life Insurance Agent Benji Carr

UPDATED: Oct 11, 2020

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More than 3 million Americans are diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) every year.

This degenerative diseases of the lungs are incurable, and is the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Lung Association.

Sometimes referred to as Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (COLD), COPD can be caused by a number of high-risk diseases, including emphysema, asthma, chronic bronchitis, asthma or chronic bronchiolitis.

The disease leads to shortness of breath or wheezing, particularly during exercise or physical activity, chronic cough and difficulty taking deep breaths in or letting deep breaths out.

The presence of pollution or smoking cigarettes can make the disease worse.

Can You Get Life Insurance with COPD?

If you have COPD/COLD, you’ve come to the right resource. The first steps you should take are contacting your life insurance agent.

Underwriters take lung diseases very seriously, and rightfully so: our lungs carry vital oxygen to the rest of our bodies and removed carbon dioxide “waste” from our system.

When your lung function is compromised, you can be certain that a slew of other health problems will follow.

This is why it’s best to speak to an agent before shopping for life insurance.

An expert agent will take the time to know the details surrounding your COPD diagnosis and ill be able to effectively communicate your risk to insurers.

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Knowing Your Risk: How Underwriters Look at COPD Applicants

Of course, even if you have an expert agent on your side, you should be doing your own research. This is why we started this blog; to help our clients learn a bit about how the life insurance industry and underwriting works.

Let’s take a look at how COPD underwriting works:

COPD is an incredibly common high-risk disease and is mostly found in individuals with a history of heavy tobacco use. The disease is diagnosed through a series of tests, known as Pulmonary Function Tests, or PFTS.

These tests include a variety of statistics, including the speed and volume of air expiration under certain conditions and the gas exchange rate among different lung membranes. Perhaps the most heavily weighted PFT – especially for insurance underwriters – is your Forced Volume Capacity (FVC).

The first part of this test refers to the amount of air expired using maximum effort after full inspiration. In simpler terms: it measures the volume of air forced from your lungs after a deep breath.

The second part of the test is known as the Forced Expired Volume test (FEV1), and measures the percentage of air let out during the first second of the original test.

These two tests are reported as a percentage and are typically expressed as FEV1/FVC. In someone with healthy lungs, there will be little difference between the two tests and the score will be nearer to 100%.

In someone with COPD, however, the number obtained during the FEV1 test will be significantly lower than the number obtained during the overall FVC.

This information may be confusing, but it will help you and your underwriter assess your score and come up with a plan to find a carrier that will cover you based on your lung function.

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Carriers will typically divide COPD sufferers into four categories – mild, moderate, severe and extreme – based on their FEV1 levels:

  • FEV1 Level 60%-80%: Individuals with FEV1 levels in this range have mild COPD. Mild chronic cough and shortness of breath are not uncommon at this level. Typically, if you have a mild case of COPD, you can expect to earn a “Standard” table rating, if your overall health is good.
  • FEV1 Level 50%-59% refers to individuals with moderate COPD. In this stage of the degenerative disease, increased coughing and wheezing can be expected at a mild level of exertion, and inhaler treatment may be recommended. Additionally, chest abnormalities are not uncommon at this level. If you have moderate COPD, you will be given a table rating and can expect to pay an additional fee for coverage.
  • FEV1 Level 40% – 49% are associated with severe COPD; shortness of breath even during mild exhaustion and frequent decreases in lung function are shown at these levels. Inhalers and steroids may be recommended for treatment. At this level, even if you are no longer a smoker, you can reasonably expect to pay smoker-level premiums.
  • FEV1 Levels 39% or less are usually found in individuals with extreme COPD. These individuals may require an oxygen mask and are typically unable to complete normal, everyday activities without extreme shortness of breath. At this level, it is rare to find an insurer who will cover your risk; however, there may be other option available to you, so be sure to talk to your agent.

Important Note: if you have COPD and continue smoking, even at the “mild level” you can expect faster degeneration than those individuals who have quit the habit. Additionally, it should not surprise you if you cannot find affordable life insurance under these circumstances.

You should speak to your doctor about ways to help you quit smoking. More information can be found at

Life Insurance Rates With COPD

While a PFT is required for a medically underwritten exam, your initial questionnaire will be able to give insurers and agents plenty insight into your condition, even if you haven’t taken the exam. This will give them an idea of which type of plans are available to you. 

Your agent will want to know your status as a smoker, the presence of asthma or any high risk diseases, your height and weight (obesity can make it more difficult to breathe) and any medications you are currently taking to help you breathe.

It is important to be as honest as possible on your questionnaire. Even if you feel a COPD diagnosis will bar you from affordable life insurance premiums, your agent can help direct your toward alternatives to help you find coverage.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease does not have to stand in the way of finding a policy to suit your needs. Give us a call today to find out how we can help.