Loneliness is associated with differences in resting-state functional connectivity (RSFC) within and between large-scale networks in early- and middle-aged adult cohorts. However, age-related changes in associations between sociality and brain function into late adulthood are not well understood. Here, we examined age differences in the association between two dimensions of sociality—loneliness and empathic responding—and RSFC of the cerebral cortex. Self-report measures of loneliness and empathic capacity were inversely related across the entire sample of younger (mean age = 22.6y, n = 128) and older (mean age = 69.0y, n = 92) adults. Using multivariate analyses of multi-echo fMRI RSFC, we identified distinct functional connectivity patterns for individual and age group differences associated with loneliness and empathic responding. Loneliness in young and empathy in both age groups was related to greater visual network integration with association networks (e.g., default, fronto-parietal control). In contrast, loneliness was positively related to within- and between-network integration of association networks for older adults. These results extend our previous findings in early- and middle-aged cohorts, demonstrating that brain systems associated with loneliness, as well as empathy, differ in older age. Further, the findings suggest that these two aspects of social experience engage different neurocognitive processes across human life-span development.
Feelings of loneliness emerge when a person’s desire or need for an interpersonal relationship is unmet. This state of perceived social isolation can influence social-cognitive processes that are critical for connecting with others, such as empathy. Neuroimaging studies have shown diverging functional connectivity patterns among functional brain networks between lonely younger and middle-aged adults. Here, we take a targeted approach to directly assess age-related differences in functional connectivity associated with loneliness and empathic responding in younger and older adults. We find evidence that individual differences in functional connectivity related to loneliness and empathic responding differ with age. We discuss possible mechanisms underlying these associations and their implications for brain and social functioning across the adult life-span.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
Handling Editor: Olaf Sporns