Latest Australian research indicates that snoring and troubled nights could be a red flag for brain damage occurring during sleep.
Brain scans of 60 people, aged in their mid-40s and recently diagnosed with a common sleep disorder, have shown a 'decreased amount of grey matter' when compared to healthy sleepers.
The damage was seen in the brains of Australians suffering from obstructive sleep apnoea, a condition affecting many overweight Australians that is also commonly overlooked.
"Usually it's a consistent snorer who seems to stop breathing in sleep, or complains of waking up with a feeling of choking, or being tired during the day," the Sydney Morning Herald quoted sleep physician Fergal O'Donoghue from the Institute for Breathing and Sleep, as saying.
"Those would be the red flags that this could be a problem with sleep apnoea," he said.
People with this sleep disorder suffer from a collapse of their airways during the night, causing a pause in breathing that forces them to rouse from deep sleep.
O'Donoghue said this could occur "many hundreds of times across the night" resulting in times when the brain was deprived of oxygen as well as "surges in blood pressure".
"What specific part of sleep apnoea might cause these changes we can't say, but we can see the changes that have occurred," said O'Donoghue.
The damage was seen in two pockets of the brain, one near a part that handles memory and the other in a region known to process smooth movement as well as changes in attention during complex tasks.
Damage to this area could explain why people with sleep apnoea were also know to have a higher rate of car accidents, said O'Donoghue.
The research was presented at the 22nd Annual Scientific Meeting of the Australasian Sleep Association and Australasian Sleep Technologists Association conference, in New Zealand.