Although the exercise programme improved physical fitness, it can not be recommended as a treatment option for cognitive impairment in dementia, say the researchers.
According to the World Health Organisation, about 50 million people worldwide suffer from the dementia, including Alzheimer's Disease as well - the most common form accounting for about two-thirds of the cases.
Currently, as a dementia therapy that does not involve medication, the NHS recommends group cognitive stimulation therapy classes, where sufferers undertake exercises created to improve their memory, problem-solving skills and language ability.
Nearly 500 people with dementia took part, with 329 embarking on a special exercise programme and 165 receiving their usual care.
"Whilst previous smaller studies have suggested that exercise can prevent or improve cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer's disease, this robust and very large study provides the most definitive answer we have on the role of exercise in mild-moderate Alzheimer's disease", he told via the Science Media Centre. They also exercised at home for one hour a week.
After 12 months, people who had taken part in the exercise programme had slightly worse results for memory and thinking abilities than the control group. On average, those who exercised saw their score change from 23.8 to 25.2. Other (secondary) outcomes included activities of daily living, number of falls, and quality of life.
This trial suggests that people with mild to moderate dementia can engage and comply with moderate to high intensity aerobic and strengthening exercise and improve physical fitness. "These benefits do not, however, translate into improvements in cognitive impairment, activities in daily living, behaviour, or health-related quality of life", they added.
"It is promising data", said Cay Anderson-Hanley, associate professor of psychology at Union College and the study's lead author.
"We don't want to alarm members of the public with dementia and their families", she said".
The disappointing results are a setback for researchers, who had hoped an exercise programme might improve people's ability to carry out everyday tasks such as washing and dressing.
He continued, "We know there are ways we can all reduce our risk of dementia, such as staying physically active, eating healthily and not smoking".
The research team gathered a group of almost 500 people who were in their 70s and suffered from the disease to participate in this study.
"The design of the study was not ideal, and the conclusion that all fitness interventions do not alter rates of decline in people with dementia is not supported", said Dr. Jeremy Koppel. This study would suggest not. "So the message remains that exercise is good but to start an exercise regime once the disease is well established may be of limited value".
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