Older people who have sleep apnea begin to experience cognitive decline about ten years earlier than those without the disorder, according to a new U.S. study by a team of researchers at the NYU School of Medicine. The study suggests that sleep apnea and snoring can hasten the onset of both Alzheimer’s disease and moderate cognitive impairment, such as memory loss, by quite a few years.

The good news is that the same study concludes that treating sleep apnea with a CPAP machine, the treatment of choice for sleep apnea, can prevent or delay the cognitive problems.

A team of researchers led by Dr Ricardo Osorio at NYU determined that sleep apnea type disturbances brought on cognitive impairment at least 11 years earlier in groups of people enrolled in his study. Osorio said that it could be the intermittent cutoff of oxygen to the brain or disruption of the sleep patterns that is responsible.

Sleep-disordered breathing is very common for the elderly, affecting 52.6 percent of men and 26.3 percent of women. The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that over 80% of cases are undiagnosed. Osorio’s study says this is because doctors are not asking the elderly about apnea and a lot of them sleep alone.

On the positive side, the study showed it is possible to counteract effects of sleep apnea with a CPAP machine. Rosorio found that people who used a CPAP device developed cognitive impairment at the same rate as those who didn’t have sleep apnea. Additional studies are now underway to further determine the positive effects of treating sleep apnea.