Women suffering from sleep apnea have more severe brain damage than men with the disorder, a new study suggests.

Researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles looked at patients diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea and compared the nerve fibers, or white matter, in the patients' brains to fibers of individuals without sleep disorders.

Researchers also focused on understanding the difference in brain damage between men and women with sleep apnea, according to the study published in the journal Sleep.

Chief investigator Paul Macey, an assistant professor and associate dean of information technology and innovations at the UCLA School of Nursing, said that while researchers have known that obstructive sleep apnea affects women "very differently" than men, previous brain studies done on sleep apnea and the impact on an individual's health have mostly focused on men or combined groups of men and women.

"This study revealed that, in fact, women are more affected by sleep apnea than are men and that women with obstructive sleep apnea have more severe brain damage than men suffering from a similar condition," Macey said in a statement.

Researchers found that the sleep disorder particularly affects the cingulum bundle and the anterior cingulate cortex, frontal regions responsible for decision-making and mood regulation, in women with the condition. Women with sleep apnea also showed significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms compared to men with the disorder.

"This tells us that doctors should consider that the sleep disorder may be more problematic and therefore need earlier treatment in women than men," Macey said.

Researchers said that the latest findings serve as a foundation for future research on untangling the timing of brain changes as well as revealing whether treating sleep apnea can help the brain.

"What we don't yet know is, did sleep apnea cause the brain damage, did the brain damage lead to the sleep disorders, or do the common comorbidities, such as depression, dementia or cardiovascular issues, cause the brain damage, which in turn leads to sleep apnea," he concluded.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder than occurs when a person's breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep. Every time breathing is interrupted, the oxygen level in the blood drops, which could eventually lead to damage to many cells in the body.

Experts say if the condition is left untreated, it can lead to a host of serious health problems including high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure and diabetes.