People all around the world will be watching the Super Bowl this Sunday (Feb 4).  The Super Bowl is, in effect, the world championship of American football. Most people will concentrate on the game, but one former player will split his attention between the big game and the health of both current and former players.  VOA's Carol Pearson has more.

This is what people expect to see from top football players: lots of action, intense  competition, and physical contact. 

Dr. Archie Roberts, with Living Heart Foundation explains, "At the height of a player's career, they are so athletic and so well conditioned and well trained, that they can withstand almost anything from a physical point of view. "

Dr. Roberts should know.  He played in the National Football League for both the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns before becoming a heart surgeon. Now he heads the Living Heart Foundation. Its mission is to educate people about heart disease, to encourage early detection through screening, and to provide a plan to improve an athlete or former athlete's health.

Dr. Roberts says he got motivated because so many athletes die way too young. "Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the United States, and it often has a long latent period where early problems develop within the body that eventually build up to be life-threatening problems some 10, 20 or 30 years later."

It can even be a problem for young athletes.  Seventeen-year-old Nick Rotolo died suddenly of a heart attack during a hockey game three years ago. And since then, other young athletes have suffered cardiac arrest.

Through his foundation, Dr. Roberts and other doctors are screening high school athletes as part of a pilot program.  

In Italy, all young athletes undergo a thorough cardio screening before they are allowed to play on a team. Those at risk for heart attack are not allowed to play.

The screening has reduced the incidence of sudden death in young Italian athletes by almost 90 percent, according to Dr. Gaetano Thiene from the Padua Center for Sports Medicine. "This was absolutely amazing because this was proving that the pre-participation screening is a life-saving tool."

The combination of large body size is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. And the collisions associated with football and other contact sports can take a toll as an athlete ages.

A new development in health care for athletes, and former athletes, involves a screening device called an SphygmoCor. It has a small pressure sensor that provides more information about blood pressure than the traditional arm cuff.  It also assesses the condition of the arteries.

Dr. Roberts adds, "With these newer techniques, we can detect earlier stages of athrosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, at a point where we can intervene and prevent serious consequences from occurring."

More than a thousand active and retired athletes have been tested, using a SphygmoCor. Dr. Roberts says the early diagnosis has already saved lives.

Video courtesy of JAMA