There's new evidence suggesting just how important sleep is for the brain.
A study, published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, finds that people who snore heavily and have breathing problems during sleep may develop memory loss and cognitive decline at a much younger age than average.
"This study might be keeping some people up at night," Dr. Carol Ash, director of sleep medicine at Meridian Health, told "CBS This Morning."
Snoring and sleep apnea -- a condition where breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep -- are common among older people, affecting about half of men and a quarter of women, according to the researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center.
They studied the medical histories of nearly 2,500 people ages 55 to 90. Participants were categorized as having either normal brain function, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), or early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
The study found that people with sleep apnea were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment an average of nearly 10 years earlier than people without sleep apnea.
"That's significant," Ash said. Even though the study did not prove cause and effect, she said it adds to a growing body of evidence that links sleep to brain health.
Fortunately, she said, there are things you can do to lower the risk. "When you have symptoms of snoring or symptoms that suggest you have sleep-disordered breathing, you really want to take it seriously. There's simple screening that can be done to identify somebody that has a problem. There's a home sleep test to make the diagnosis. Then there's treatment options."
For people with sleep apnea, a device called a CPAP mask, worn over the nose and mouth, can help keep the airways open at night. It may look uncomfortable, but Ash said, "When you have a patient who truly has this problem, it can change and save their life. You have to coax them through and get them comfortable, but once they're using it, they won't go back."
Losing a few pounds can also be effective, since excess weight often contributes to snoring and breathing problems. In other cases, dental work or surgery can make a difference.
The NYU researchers found that patients whose sleep issues were treated were able to ward off cognitive decline. "The age of onset of MCI for people whose breathing problems were treated was almost identical to that of people who did not have any breathing problems at all," study author Ricardo Osorio, MD, said in a press statement. "Given that so many older adults have sleep breathing problems, these results are exciting --we need to examine whether using CPAP could possibly help prevent or delay memory and thinking problems."
Ash stressed the importance of getting diagnosed and dealing with sleep problems, since in addition to memory decline, snoring and sleep apnea have also been linked to an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and other life-threatening conditions.
"Sometimes you can't undo all of the damage, but I've seen significant improvements," she said. "It's worth looking into."
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