The proportion of older people continues to grow worldwide, especially in developing countries. Non-communicable diseases are fast becoming the leading causes of disability and mortality, and in coming decades health and social policy-makers will face tremendous challenges posed by the rapidly changing burden of chronic diseases in old age. Chronic disease and most oral diseases share common risk factors. Globally, poor oral health amongst older people has been particularly evident in high levels of tooth loss, dental caries experience, and the prevalence rates of periodontal disease, xerostomia and oral precancer/cancer. The negative impact of poor oral conditions on the quality of life of older adults is an important public health issue, which must be addressed by policy-makers. The means for strengthening oral health programme implementation are available; the major challenge is therefore to translate knowledge into action programmes for the oral health of older people. The World Health Organization recommends that countries adopt certain strategies for improving the oral health of the elderly. National health authorities should develop policies and measurable goals and targets for oral health. National public health programmes should incorporate oral health promotion and disease prevention based on the common risk factors approach. Control of oral disease and illness in older adults should be strengthened through organization of affordable oral health services, which meet their needs. The needs for care are highest among disadvantaged, vulnerable groups in both developed and developing countries. In developing countries the challenges to provision of primary oral health care are particularly high because of a shortage of dental manpower. In developed countries reorientation of oral health services towards prevention should consider oral care needs of older people. Education and continuous training must ensure that oral health care providers have skills in and a profound understanding of the biomedical and psychosocial aspects of care for older people. Research for better oral health should not just focus on the biomedical and clinical aspects of oral health care; public health research needs to be strengthened particularly in developing countries. Operational research and efforts to translate science into practice are to be encouraged. WHO supports national capacity building in the oral health of older people through intercountry and interregional exchange of experiences.