Background: There is increasing interest in the role of physical exercise as a therapeutic strategy for individuals with Alzheimer's disease (AD). We assessed the effect of 26 weeks (6 months) of a supervised aerobic exercise program on memory, executive function, functional ability and depression in early AD.
Methods and findings: This study was a 26-week randomized controlled trial comparing the effects of 150 minutes per week of aerobic exercise vs. non-aerobic stretching and toning control intervention in individuals with early AD. A total of 76 well-characterized older adults with probable AD (mean age 72.9 [7.7]) were enrolled and 68 participants completed the study. Exercise was conducted with supervision and monitoring by trained exercise specialists. Neuropsychological tests and surveys were conducted at baseline,13, and 26 weeks to assess memory and executive function composite scores, functional ability (Disability Assessment for Dementia), and depressive symptoms (Cornell Scale for Depression in Dementia). Cardiorespiratory fitness testing and brain MRI was performed at baseline and 26 weeks. Aerobic exercise was associated with a modest gain in functional ability (Disability Assessment for Dementia) compared to individuals in the ST group (X2 = 8.2, p = 0.02). There was no clear effect of intervention on other primary outcome measures of Memory, Executive Function, or depressive symptoms. However, secondary analyses revealed that change in cardiorespiratory fitness was positively correlated with change in memory performance and bilateral hippocampal volume.
Conclusions: Aerobic exercise in early AD is associated with benefits in functional ability. Exercise-related gains in cardiorespiratory fitness were associated with improved memory performance and reduced hippocampal atrophy, suggesting cardiorespiratory fitness gains may be important in driving brain benefits.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT01128361.