IT is often said 60 is the "new 40".

Now researchers have challenged the idea that the ageing population of Scotland is a burden on society, saying it fails to take into account the improving health of the older generation.

The 2011 Census showed that for the first time in Scotland, there were more people aged over 65 than children aged under 15. The number of over-65s stood at 890,000 - an 11% increase since 2001, while there was 854,000 children aged under 15, a drop of 6% over the decade.

This rapidly ageing population has raised fears of a "time bomb" which will create pressure on healthcare, social services and pensions.

But researchers at an Economic and Social Research Council seminar being held in Edinburgh tomorrow will argue that the older population is in fact getting "younger" when compared to their peers of earlier generations.

In 1909, for example, a man of 57 could expect to live for another 15 years, while a woman would have another 15 years to live aged 60.

In 1976, this had risen, so that a man aged 60 could have another 15 years, while a woman of 66 had a further life expectancy of 15 years.

But by 2009 life expectancy had risen even further - with men aged 68 and women aged 71 living for another 15 years on average.

John MacInnes, professor of sociology at Edinburgh University, said: "The average age is going up but the average years left still to live is also going up.

"What is surprising is that something that has filtered through to popular understanding. So people talk about 60 is the new 40 - people are not only living longer, they are aware they are living longer. People don't think I'm going to die at 65, when in fact the chances are they are going to live to 80 or 85 or whatever - and that is associated with all kinds of changes in patterns of age and behaviour."

MacInnes dismissed the notion that in the future there will be packed-out care homes placing a burden on those of working age.

"That is the stereotype that's grabbed the popular imagination, but the evidence doesn't really back it up," he said. "Most older people are fit and doing really quite useful things and so the idea that they are a sort of burden that we have to carry on our backs is a bit misplaced."

MacInnes cited grandparents being the most important source of childcare after parents in the UK.

He added: "Most acute hospital care also occurs in the final months of people's lives and it doesn't matter if those final months are at 45 or 95.

"If that is the case, population ageing doesn't imply a need to spend more and more and more on hospital services, for example."

He added: "It is not to say that there aren't things that can be done. However, the idea that older people are dependent is just empirically, systematically misleading."

MacInnes challenged the idea of a pensions "crisis", saying he believed this had been exaggerated in order to support downsizing the welfare state.

Co-researcher Dr Jeroen Spijker, a senior research fellow at Edinburgh University, said: "Many of the developments that lead to people living longer - better public health, better diet, better health and safety at work, better treatment for chronic conditions - also lead to them being healthier. This reduces the burden of population ageing."

The seminar, which is being held as part of the Economic and Social Research Council's Festival of Social Science, will also include speakers from National Records of Scotland and the International Longevity Centre UK.

A spokesman for Age Scotland said: "Keeping active and socially involved is indeed essential for a long and healthy life, however persistent inequality in Scottish society is a barrier to this that can't be ignored, nor the importance of sustained investment in support services that help people to make positive choices."