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February 10, 2001
Column #1015

THE MEDICAL CONSEQUENCES OF LONELINESS

     Three years ago I had colon cancer. The operation was successful. Subsequent follow up tests revealed, thankfully, that I am cancer-free. Yet when my life insurance policy expired recently, it was nearly impossible to get renewed and then at only a very high cost.

     However, I lamely accepted this news as a not unreasonable consequence of having had a life-threatening illness which statistically made me more likely to die than a man who had not had colon cancer. 

     And then I read Dr. James J. Lynch's powerful new book, ''A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness.'' Now I am angry. 

     A divorced man who has had the same illness as mine is nearly twice as likely to die as I am. Yet my insurance premium was not been lowered despite the fact I've had a wonderful wife for 35 years.

     A person who smokes cigarettes is more likely to die young than a non-smoker. The key study was the Hammond Report which led to the posting on every cigarette package, ''Smoking is dangerous to your health.'' When Dr. Harold Morowitz of Yale studied Hammond, he found a divorced non-smoker is twice as likely to die in any year as a married non-smoker. A married man who smokes is only slightly more at risk than a divorced non-smoker.

     Well, insurance companies, I am a married non-smoker!

     Lynch's book provides evidence that ''For every major cause of death, the rates for divorced males ranged anywhere from two to six times higher than their married counterparts.'' Heart disease, lung or digestive cancer and stroke kill twice as many divorced as married men in any year. Auto deaths and suicide are four times more frequent with the divorced, cirrhosis of liver, pneumonia and murder, seven times higher.

     A report of the National Institute for Health Care Research reviewed 42 studies of 126,000 people which found ''highly religious individuals had odds of survival approximately 29% higher than those of less religious individuals.'' For example, attending church weekly stretched lives an average of seven years for whites and 14 for African Americans.

     Bingo! I attend religious services weekly. 

     But when I had medical exams for various insurance companies, none of them asked me if I was married or divorced, religious or non-religious. Most simply turned me down as a bad risk.

     I called Mike Weiler, Chief Actuary of the Beneficial Life Insurance Co., in Salt Lake City, Utah, a firm which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormons. I asked if the company charged reduced premiums on people who are religious or are married. He said no. 

     ''Why not, since you are owned by the Mormon Church, that believes deeply in the importance of marriage and faith? Why wouldn't you want to promote those values?'' I asked.

     ''It is illegal,'' he replied. ''You can statistically show that white people live longer than African Americans. But society will not let you charge a different rate based on race. You can't discriminate on basis of religion or sexual preferences.''

     I asked whether he charged lower rates for non-smokers. Yes, he said. I asked if insurance premiums were lower for women because they live longer. Yes, again.

     ''Then you are discriminating against smokers and men in your rates. Why not favor married people?

     ''We are not allowed to. It is not the insurance company's choice. However, from the insurance company's perspective, it would make sense. State insurance departments make the rules that we have to live by. Why don't you check with your state's Insurance Department.''

     I called the Utah Insurance Department, and asked John Braun, ''Can a life insurance company lower its premiums for people who are married since those people live longer?''

     ''We haven't been asked to do that,'' he replied. ''It is a rating characteristic. It depends on the business you are taking on in premium construction.'' 

     I called back the Morman insurance company representative, and reported that his own state did not say it was illegal to consider marriage. ''I may have mis-spoke,'' he replied.

     There you have it. 

     If you are married or are religiously active, I suggest you call your insurance company and ask why your premiums are not lower than they are. 

     I tried it with my insurer, Zurich Kemper, and got stunned silence. 

     If thousands of us do so, perhaps we will get a fairer system. 

     One final point. Lynch's book makes it shockingly clear that an application for divorce should say, ''Divorce is hazardous to your health.''

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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