Loneliness is linked to increased risk for Alzheimer's disease, but little is known about factors potentially contributing to adverse brain health in lonely individuals. In this study, we used data from 24,867 UK Biobank participants to investigate risk factors related to loneliness and estimated brain age based on neuroimaging data. The results showed that on average, individuals who self-reported loneliness on a single yes/no item scored higher on neuroticism, depression, social isolation, and socioeconomic deprivation, performed less physical activity, and had higher BMI compared to individuals who did not report loneliness. In line with studies pointing to a genetic overlap of loneliness with neuroticism and depression, permutation feature importance ranked these factors as the most important for classifying lonely vs. not lonely individuals (ROC AUC = 0.83). While strongly linked to loneliness, neuroticism and depression were not associated with brain age estimates. Conversely, objective social isolation showed a main effect on brain age, and individuals reporting both loneliness and social isolation showed higher brain age relative to controls - as part of a prominent risk profile with elevated scores on socioeconomic deprivation and unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, in addition to neuroticism and depression. While longitudinal studies are required to determine causality, this finding may indicate that the combination of social isolation and a genetic predisposition for loneliness involves a risk for adverse brain health. Importantly, the results underline the complexity in associations between loneliness and adverse health outcomes, where observed risks likely depend on a combination of interlinked variables including genetic as well as social, behavioural, physical, and socioeconomic factors.
Behav Brain Res
Brain age, Loneliness, Machine learning, Neuroimaging, Risk factors, Social isolation