MORE pensioners die in Scotland because they cannot afford to heat their homes than anywhere else in Europe, according to research published today.

Experts said poverty was the main cause of the high death toll among the elderly, and warned that those living in Glasgow were at greatest risk.

A study by Strathclyde University warned that Scotland had the highest death toll in Europe, after ranking higher than colder countries such as Finland and Norway. Even central Siberia, where temperatures fall as low as -35C, has a lower winter death rate.

The research published today, traditionally the coldest day of the year, found that deaths could be prevented if pensioners were helped to keep warm in their homes.

Dr Stirling Howieson, of Strathclyde University, said that cold, draughty and damp conditions were to blame for nearly all of the deaths.

He added: ''The main point is that you are almost twice as likely to die in Glasgow as you are in North Ayrshire.

''About 90% (of the deaths) are registered under heart, stroke and respiratory diseases, all of which are known to be exacerbated by cold living conditions. These deaths are essentially preventable if the elderly live in warm, dry homes.''

The research, commissioned by Energy Action Scotland, a charity which aims to eliminate fuel poverty, showed that, between 1997 and 2002, Scotland registered 16,600 more deaths for over-65s in winter than spring, summer or autumn.

Previous studies have found that the UK had the highest rate for excess winter deaths, compared to countries such as Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Greece. However, the latest study shows Scotland is even worse, with an increase which is much greater than in other countries with similar or more severe climates.

Researchers found that the rise in the death rate of the over-65 age group during the winter months is directly linked to levels of poverty, measured by region. Climatic variations, house type, energy efficiency of the dwelling and access to the gas network did not affect death rates.

Jess Barrow, head of policy and public affairs at Age Concern Scotland, said: ''The Scottish Executive will find it very hard to eradicate fuel poverty, because the issues surrounding pensions and benefits are a reserved matter. The only way to deal with poverty is to increase pensions - so the ball is firmly in the chancellor's court.''

Ann Loughrey, director of Energy Action Scotland, said: ''We need to tackle the underlying causes of poverty and the effect this has on health.''

Pensioners in Glasgow were found to be most at risk, with one in 36 dying over the winter months, while those living in North Ayrshire were least likely to die, with the figure falling to one in 68. Others included Edinburgh - one in 48; and Aberdeen - one in 44.