MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Conventional wisdom might suggest living in the country would be healthier than the city, but that is not necessarily so, according to a study comparing relative health across cities, suburbs and rural areas.

"Some of these rural areas are quite depressed, impoverished, with poor social and economic factors, and they have bad health outcomes," Patrick Remington of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute said on Thursday.

Remington, who expanded the institute's annual statewide study to a national study in 2010, said that some of the least healthy places in Wisconsin were small rural areas.

The County Health Rankings takes a snapshot of an area's health using rates of premature death, low birth weight, disease and risk factors such as smoking, obesity, drinking and crime along with education and employment rates.

One of the main goals of the rankings is to raise community awareness. This year's study concluded that 48 percent of the healthiest counties were urban or suburban, while 84 percent of the unhealthiest counties were rural.

Suburban counties tended to have the best health outcomes, Remington said.

"Some cities have better health outcomes than what you would expect," Remington added, pointing to some densely populated boroughs of New York as ranking well.

Not all high population areas fared well. Wisconsin's most populous area, Milwaukee County, ranked last in the state.

The study helped to change some behavior in Genesee County, Michigan, which ranked last among the state's 82 counties in the 2010 rankings, according to Kirk Smith.

Flint is the county seat of Genesee, which is north of Detroit and has been buffeted in recent years by the downturn in both the Michigan economy and the U.S. auto industry.

As president and chief executive of the Greater Flint Health Coalition, Smith is familiar with the problems highlighted in the rankings, including the county's high rates of smoking, obesity and sexually transmitted diseases.

"We always knew we had problems like that, but when you come in last in diet, health, exercise and nutrition, it's a good tool to wake people up," Smith said. "It raised a lot of awareness. It was key to really starting to generate a lot of action around things like health behaviors in our community."

(Reporting by John Rondy; Editing by David Bailey and Cynthia Johnston)

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