While getting a set of dentures was once almost a rite of passage for seniors, that seems to be changing. New figures show only a small proportion of Canadians are now completely toothless.

Statistics Canada reported recently that the number of Canadians who are now "edentulous," as dentists like to say, has fallen off greatly in recent years.

According to the Oral Health component of the Canada Health Measures Survey (CHMS), only 6.6 per cent of the Canadian population aged 20-79 reports they have no teeth of their own.

That compares to 1990, when 17 per cent of the population had no teeth.

Not surprisingly, the rates of "toothlessness" vary with Canadians' ages: in those aged 40 to 59, the rate is somewhere around 4.4 per cent, Statistics Canada reports. Yet more than one in five Canadians (21.7 per cent) aged 60 to 79 were completely toothless in 2009, compared to 43 per cent in 1990.

Statistics Canada didn't speculate on the reasons for the changes, but the agency does say: "The long-term decline in the edentulous population parallels widespread use of fluorides in Canada and improved access to dental care over the past decades."

Dr. Don Friedlander, the president of the Canadian Dental Association, says he believes falling rates of "toothlessness" can be attributed to better access to dental care -- as well as better education about prevention.

"Patients are taking more ownership for their health, and informing themselves about how their mouth health affects the rest of their overall health," he told CTV.ca by phone.

"They're therefore more willing to take advice and use the tools available to keep their mouths as healthy as possible."

He says he would like to one day see the number of Canadians who have no teeth fall to zero. It's a dream that could happen, he says.

"Already, we have kids in my practice, even 25-year-olds, who are completely decay-free," he said. "So it's getting better all the time."

Friedlander says his group is looking forward to the full Statistics Canada report on oral health, due to be released this spring, because it will offer the first national picture of Canadians' oral health in over 30 years.

The CHMS will also include information on changing demographics and other factors that may affect oral health. It will be interesting to see, for example, whether declining smoking rates and increasing fluoridation rates have affected the oral health of Canadians.

While many have the mistaken belief that losing teeth is not a big deal, since dentures are available, Friedlander notes that dentures can never take the place of the real thing.

"There's no removable prosthetic dental device that works as well as your own teeth," he says. "Just as if you had an amputated leg and you had to have a prosthetic leg, you're not going to be able to run as well. Sure, you'll be able to get around, but it won't be the same. It's the same with your own teeth."

He says removable dentures move around, especially as people eat, and that can lead to denture sores.

They also cover the taste buds on the roof of the mouth, meaning people can't taste as well. Couple that with the fact that many people with dentures have to eat softer foods, dentures can really ruin the pleasure of eating.

"So it can really affect quality of life: your enjoyment of smiling, kissing, eating -- lots of things are affected.

Less interest in eating can mean weight loss, and for seniors, that carries its own risks.

Friedlander explains that when teeth fall out, the bone that supported then starts to disappear too. Not only will that change the look of the face, as bone thins, but there's more possibility of jaw fracture, especially in women.

Thankfully, where teeth were once always pulled when they become problematic, there are now other options -- everything from root canals, to gum grafts to dental implants.

While technology will continue to improve, Friedlander says prevention will always be the key to maintaining oral health -- and health in general.

"If we can prevent problems at the front-end, you can prevent huge expense at the back end," he says.