Abstract This paper aims to identify the features of a natural dentition, specifically the number and distribution of teeth, which are important for oral satisfaction and freedom from eating problems in the elderly. Data were gathered on the dental condition, satisfaction and function of 1211 dentate adults aged 60 years or over, randomly sampled from three areas in England. Multiple logistic regression was used to identify the clinical factors which contribute to satisfaction with aesthetics and the ability to bite and chew. Satisfaction with biting and chewing was influenced by specific reported eating problems, dry mouth and increasing age. The presence of these eating problems was related to a complex series of factors describing the number and distribution of teeth and dentures, and some variables describing symptoms and disease. Having 21 or more natural teeth and no removable partial dentures (odds ratio 3.2), 2 or more posterior contacting pairs of teeth (odds ratio 1.7), and few anterior spaces were important factors related to the absence of eating problems. Unfilled anterior spaces (odds ratio 3.9), and widespread caries and periodontal disease were associated with aesthetic dissatisfaction. Many of the principles of shortened dental arch are consistent with good function and satisfaction in the elderly.