Education is critical to social and economic development and has a profound impact on population health. We review evidence for the health benefits associated with education in the context of a socio-ecological model of health. The health benefits of education accrue at the individual level (e.g., skill development and access to resources); the community level (e.g., the health-related characteristics of the environments in which people live); and the larger social/ cultural context (e.g., social policies, residential segregation, and unequal access to educational resources). All of these upstream factors may contribute to health outcomes, while factors such as ability to navigate the health care system, educational disparities in personal health behaviors, and exposure to chronic stress act as more proximate factors. It is also important to consider the impact of health on educational attainment and the conditions that occur throughout the life course that can impact both health and education, such as early childhood experiences. After exploring the literature linking health and education, we describe a project to engage residents of a low-income, urban community in a process of creating causal models to try to identify new links between education and health and help refine our understanding of the complex phenomena that shape this relationship. We asked community researchers to map out the pathways linking education and health in an effort to explore the possibility that people outside of academia might be able to help refine our understanding of complex phenomena by positing factors and relationships from their lived experience.
Education is one of the key filtering mechanisms that situate individuals within particular ecological contexts. Education is a driving force at each ecological level, from our choice of partner to our social position in the status hierarchy. The ecological model can therefore provide a context for the numerous ways in which education is linked to our life experiences, including health outcomes. It also provides a framework for understanding the ways in which educational outcomes themselves are conditioned on the many social and environmental contexts in which we live and how these, in turn, interact with our individual endowments and experiences.