Heavy snoring and sleep apnea may be linked to a decline in memory and thinking for younger people, according to a new study published in the issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. This study also suggests that treating the disorder with a breathing machine may interrupt the decline.

Ricardo Osorio, MD, with the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York and key researcher of the study, said, “Abnormal breathing patterns during sleep such as heavy snoring and sleep apnea are common in the elderly, affecting about 52 percent of men and 26 percent of women.” The medical histories of 2,470 people ages 55 to 90 were reviewed. Researchers categorized patients in two categories: free of memory and thinking problems, in early stages of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), or with Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers also looked at people with untreated sleep-breathing problems versus those without the problems and also untreated versus treated people with sleep-breathing problems.

The importance of this study shows that those with sleep-breathing problems were diagnosed with MCI, on average, nearly 10 years earlier than those participants who did not have sleep-breathing problems. For example, those who developed MCI or Alzheimer’s disease during the study had developed MCI at an average age of 77, compared to an average age of 90 for those who did not have sleep-breathing problems. Among that group, those who had sleep breathing problems also developed Alzheimer’s disease five years earlier than those who did not have sleep-breathing problems, at an average age of 83 versus 88.

The researchers found that those who were treated for sleep-breathing problems with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) treatment were diagnosed with MCI about 10 years later than those whose problems were not treated, or at age 82 instead of age 72.

“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,” Osorio said. “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.”

From this study sleep apnea and memory loss appear connected. Osorio said that, although more research is needed, many of the findings point towards the importance and benefits of sleep apnea treatment. One such treatment is CPAP because it may prevent, or at least delay mental decline for those with the sleeping disorder.