Obesity may lead to numerous health problems, but it may actually be linked to fewer successful suicides, according to a new study.

Dr. Kenneth J. Mukamal, at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, looked at rates of suicide and obesity in U.S. states in 2004 and 2005. On average, about a quarter of adults studied were classified as obese on the basis of their body mass index, which is a standard measure of the relationship of height and weight. Also on average, there were about 12 suicides per 100,000 adults.

However, with each 3 percent increase in obesity in a given state, there were 3 fewer suicides per 100,000 adults, they report in the journal Obesity.

U.S. states with higher rates of obesity also had lower rates of successful suicide using guns, suffocation, and poisoning.

Generally, states with higher rates of obesity also had higher rates of gun ownership and adults who smoke, plus lower rates of college education and household income.

After they took those factors into account, however, the obesity-suicide relationship remained consistent.

Mukamal said more definitive studies are needed to confirm the link and figure out what is responsible for it. For example, the authors speculate that poisonings may be less lethal in the obese because they require higher doses, and that suffocation may be less common because the steps involved in hanging may be burdensome (and) uncomfortable in obese people.

However, the study did not prove a cause and effect, and even if future studies do, the risks of obesity far outweigh any potential benefit on suicide prevention.

More people die from suicide in the U.S. than from homicide, noted Mukamal. Yet, we know of very few ways to prevent suicide, other than minimizing access to guns, he told Reuters Health in an email.

SOURCE: Obesity, October 2009.