Findings from human experimental studies suggest that mastication positively influences cognitive function. The participants in those studies were relatively young. The goal of this study was to examine the relationship between the functional status of the masticatory system, episodic memory, and executive functions in elderly people. The participants, elderly people living independently at home, were divided into two groups. One group had a full complement of natural teeth (n = 19) and the other group had full dentures (n = 19). The functional status of the masticatory system was assessed by measuring mandibular excursions (i.e. the distances over which the mandible can move in the open, lateral, and forward directions), bite force, number of occluding pairs and complaints of the masticatory system (facial pain, headaches/migraine). Executive functions and episodic memory were assessed by neuropsychological tests. Backward regression analysis showed that only in the group of elderly people with full dentures, 22% of executive functions were predicted by complaints of the masticatory system and 19·4% of episodic memory was predicted by masticatory performance (composed of mandibular excursions and bite force). The conclusion of this study is that only in older persons with full dentures the relationship between mastication, episodic memory, and executive function becomes evident when the functional status of the masticatory system decreases. © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.